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How one North Carolina town stayed dry during Florence

Why We Wrote This

As staff writer Patrik Jonsson began traveling the Carolinas after hurricane Florence, he came across a town that put aside its differences over politics and global warming to find a solution to chronic flooding. So far, it has kept Florence at bay.

Patrik Jonsson/The Christian Science Monitor
Shrimp boats were clustered on shore ahead of hurricane (now tropical depression) Florence at the Swan Quarter, N.C., harbor, just outside an $18 million, 18-mile-long dike that protects the Hyde County seat.

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Henry Williams, a farmer and volunteer firefighter, does not believe that humans are altering the temperature of the planet. But he is the one who helps care for the dike in Swan Quarter, N.C. – a job he takes very seriously. An 18-mile-long feat of engineering completed in 2010, the dike is a piece of political pragmatism that has gained stature as it held up well against during hurricanes Irene and Matthew, superstorm Sandy, and so far Florence. Across the South, this kind of pragmatism has begun to bubble up from vulnerable coastal towns. The ideological divide over the cause of climate change may have hampered flood preparations in some communities. But there is also growing evidence that mounting property losses and threatened historical landmarks are wearing away resistance to preparedness. That common purpose might sometimes be hard to see on the national stage. But locally, people are putting aside politics in favor of practical solutions. “Working in Swan Quarter, flooding is not an ideological issue there. It is a way of life. Same with sea level rise. People have watched it happen within that lived environment. If you watch forests turn to marshland and the roads flood, the politics fade away,” says Jason Evans, an environmentalist who worked on the project.

Neighbors J.W. Raburn and Henry Williams are political polar opposites. Mr. Raburn says he may have been the only one in this sound-side hamlet to have voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. Mr. Williams voted for President Trump.

But the two lifelong friends – along with about 300 or so other North Carolinians who call Swan Quarter home – stood united this weekend against hurricane Florence.

Nearby Oriental, New Bern, and large parts of central North Carolina were devastated when up to 40 inches of rain fell, swelling rivers that are expected to crest later this week. Tens of thousands of residents were displaced, and at least 23 people died.

Yet Swan Quarter, which used to flood regularly and was fully drenched by 2003’s hurricane Isabel, stayed largely dry. Sure, Raburn had readied his sailboat, Blue Heaven, as a possible escape. And Williams rued the loss of his beets.

Both men cite a remarkable piece of engineering as the town’s savior: An 18-mile-long, $13.2 million dike built over 25 years of floods to protect Swan Quarter, the ferry-bound seat of Hyde County, which includes historic Ocracoke Island.

“There is no doubt that dike has saved us. It gives us a little bit of hope,” says Raburn. His friend nods.

The dike, completed in 2010, is a piece of political pragmatism that has gained stature as it held up well against during hurricanes Irene and Matthew, superstorm Sandy, and so far, Florence. Another town in Hyde County, Engelhard, faced substantial flooding over the weekend. Discussions about a dike had already begun there before the storm.

The ideological divide over the cause of climate change may have hampered flood preparations in some communities. But there is also growing evidence that mounting property losses, declines in property values, and threatened historical landmarks are wearing away resistance to preparedness. That common purpose might sometimes be hard to see on the national stage. But locally, people are putting aside politics in favor of practical solutions.

“Working in Swan Quarter, flooding is not an ideological issue there. It is a way of life. Same with sea level rise. People have watched it happen within that lived environment. If you watch forests turn to marshland and the roads flood, the politics fade away,” says Jason Evans, an environmentalist from Stetson University in DeLand, Fla., who worked on the dike project.

Patrik Jonsson/The Christian Science Monitor
Henry Williams of Swan Quarter, N.C., shown with his cat Tom-Tom, credits an 18-mile-long dike for keeping their remote coastal town dry. Mr. Williams, the caretaker of the dike, is a Trump supporter who questions man-made global warming but says sea level rise is real.

Raburn and Williams, former bandmates, show the human side of the debate. Raburn believes that finding solutions to manmade climate change is vital. Williams, a farmer and volunteer firefighter, does not believe that humans are altering the temperature of the planet, calling it “a phase we are going through.” But he is the one who cares for and maintains the dike – a job he takes very seriously.

Across the Southern coast, such sentiments have begun to bubble up from vulnerable island towns and sound-side communities. Tybee Island, Ga., has become a leader in developing sea-level adaptation plans now being used from Key West, Fla., to St. Mary’s, Ga.

“The bottom line is we need to assess what we do with property and insurance based on facts and science rather than wishful thinking,” says former lawmaker Deborah Ross, now a Raleigh attorney. “And I think we are at a place now where people are more interested in doing that.”

Tybee Island is heavily Republican, “but they were willing to hire a long-haired politician like myself at the local level,” says Paul Wolff, a former city council member who has worked to depoliticize climate change and sea-level rise. Improvements put into place from the 2012 plan have resulted in lowered flood-insurance premiums.

“The question for people here on the island was for a long time: Why should we [be studying sea level rise] when nobody else is?” says Mr. Wolff. “My answer has been, because we are on the front lines. If we don’t deal with it, who will?”

That sense of what Swan Quarter resident Walt Cahoon calls “an intimacy with the land” has put both resort towns and hardscrabble hamlets on the leading edge of climate change adaptation, sometimes at odds with state and federal attention.

“Many people go back six or seven generations. The sense of place is incredibly important,” says Professor Evans. “People there have their own brogue. And if you have your own accent, that should tell you something about the place.”

A recent study investigated 44 climate-adaptation plans developed by a range of municipalities, from big cities to tiny towns. Solutions were often simple, including adjusting maintenance schedules and storm-drain cleanings. The biggest weaknesses the authors' cited were failing to include monitoring in their plans and the uncertainty of climate change projections.

In 2017, the credit rating agency Moody’s for the first time notified coastal towns that if they are not preparing for climate change, their credit ratings could be affected, meaning higher interest rates on bonds. An analysis by the First Street Foundation found that Southern coastal states had seen a total home value loss of $7.4 billion from climate-change-related sea level rise since 2005, the bulk of it in Florida and North Carolina.

“It is one thing to project what the future impacts of sea level rise could be, but it is quite another to know that the market has already responded negatively to this threat,” said FSF principal Steven McAlpine, in a press release.

Some North Carolina lawmakers have called climate change warnings “extreme” and “unreliable.” The state is far from alone in its so-far dismissive approach.

The Republican-led legislature passed a law in 2012 that mandated that state officials use historical trend lines rather than modern climate change predictions to shape real estate and agricultural policy. Lawmakers balked at predictions of a 39-inch sea-level rise in 100 years, with one lawmaker alleging that university researchers “pulled the data out of their back pocket.”

The law gave a break to real estate developers struggling to rebound from the Great Recession. But critics say it also sapped incentive, money, and planning at a moment demanding vigilance and foresight.

Doubtfulness about the effects of climate change may be shifting, however. Republican lawmaker Chuck McGrady led a state effort to develop new mudslide maps for western North Carolina, now being tested as Florence crawls north.

Jacob Turcotte/Staff

Here in Swan Quarter, local taxes are likely to go up. The county needs to purchase pumps to help clear water that seeps through the dike. Across the sound on Ocracoke Island, county leaders are working on bolstering dunes.

To be sure, some locals wonder whether how much real value is left in their properties. Raburn bought an 1877 house where the original cistern is holding up a corner of a structure that is hopelessly “catawampus,” he says. He bought it for $14,000 two years ago. It might be worth $5,000 today, he estimates.

At the same time, the dike played a role in the county investing millions in a new courthouse and fire station. The state credit union has felt confident enough in the dike to build a new branch. A critical ferry service runs from the docks to the Ocracoke Island. Inside the local gas station, a line drawn at head level shows the height of Isabel’s surge. Thus far, Florence has left no mark at all.

The size of the town and the lean budgets mean, “the kind of interventions that can be done there and how we think about it is much different than thinking about New York City or Miami,” says Evans. “Hyde County is a hardscrabble place trying to build a dike. Nothing solves anything forever…. But it clearly has helped with certain floods. I wouldn’t want to be in Swan Quarter during a big hurricane event without that dike being there.”

The dike remains controversial. Local taxes are going up as state and federal resources dry up. Some residents think the dike just creates a bowl to hold the water. But Williams is confident that it holds storm surges at bay.

It is up to Williams, who dotes on a three-legged cat named Tom-Tom and brags about his hush puppies, to mow it. When the clouds clear, it is used as a footpath for teenagers and other walkers.

“Whatever legislators want to do, whatever presidents want to do, it’s in the end not relevant in terms of trying to work through the facts. We have scientific understanding that can apply to all these places,” says Evans. “But I have also seen over and over again – whether in the Florida Keys or in Swan Quarter – that within areas facing substantial problems, all the political stuff that we all get drawn into fades away.”

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