The Inner Banks' Rising Tide

The lights of Atlantic Beach and Morehead City have long since faded by the time Highway 12 arrives at Cedar Island, perched at the tip of Carteret County. It’s another six miles of marsh before any development appears. 

This secluded and unincorporated township on the coast of the Pamlico Sound is home to less than 250 people. Its homes, churches, motel, fish house, gas station and grocery store are all found along a single road that ends at the ferry running to Ocracoke. 

Joseph Smith was born and raised on Cedar Island. He remembers days as a boy in the 1950s when flooding from a hurricane or other major storm would force his family and neighbors to tie skiffs to their front porches so they could get around after the water came. 

Today, he still lives on the water in Carteret County, but twenty miles inland, on the bank of Adams Creek, which is off the Neuse River just before it feeds into the Pamlico Sound. Now, he says storms with the strength of the ones that stuck with him as a kid frequent the area much more often than they did in the ‘50s. 

But while the headline-grabbing storm surge of hurricanes garners the most attention, another effect of climate change has had a more insidious impact on North Carolina’s inland coast. As sea level rise shortens the relative gap between the water and the infrastructure of the region, flooding from common storms or a few days of strong wind is occurring more often and more severely. 

These floods, called “nuisance floods” by experts, don’t normally result in catastrophic property damage or loss of life, but they can become regular enough to leave roads inaccessible, strain city and county maintenance budgets, overload stormwater systems, cause issues with sewer and septic systems, and leave many of the lower-income communities of the inland coast with no easy way to respond. 

“We already know that this flooding has doubled nationally in the last 20 years,” said William Sweet, an oceanographer for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who studies nuisance flooding nationally. 

Sweet says not only are these flooding events happening more often, but that the rate of increase itself is also accelerating. “This problem isn’t going away. It’s going to get worse, and it’s only a matter of time.” 

North Carolina’s inland coast is among the most affected in the U.S. With a particularly wide continental shelf off its coast and regular exposure to steady winds from the northeast, the region experiences one of the country’s highest rates of nuisance flooding. 

The coastlines surrounding North Carolina’s two largest sounds are like the edges of a full bathtub. When the wind stays constant for a day or two, either side of the Pamlico and Albemarle Sound can flood. Flooding events range significantly in strength based on the speed of the wind and the length of time it maintains the same direction, but typical wind patterns force the inland coast to bear the brunt of this flooding. 

This constant, wind-driven flooding is what makes the increase in nuisance flooding on the inland coast so insidious. While the damage it leaves is easy to see, the issue’s growth is only measurable through the dedicated observation of flooding in a certain area and analysis of the data over time. 

There’s no line in the sand showing the ever-creeping march of water. The inland coast’s shoreline of marshes and estuarine ecosystems make the interface between land and water much less distinct than it is on sandy beaches.

ta cedar 02

ta cedar 03

A 2021 storm, made Cedar Island, North Carolina almost unreachable by car, with 37 mph winds bringing over 2.8 feet of flooding. The ferry service was stopped and the main road to reach the island, highway 12, mostly unnavigable for cars // Photos by Andrea Bruce

It’s also a problem without a clear source of funding to address it. Along the Outer Banks, and on the oceanfront near Wilmington, sea level rise is coupled with high property values.

But on the inner banks of North Carolina, a winding, 3,000-mile coastline of marshes and wetlands, the same high-dollar assets and corresponding tax base just aren’t present. 

Carteret County Commissioner Chris Chadwick has lived in the county for 49 years; his district includes Cedar Island and a host of other small and unincorporated coastal communities. 

Chadwick explained that many of these communities’ infrastructure needs fall to the county to fund, and that even the county would never be able to afford building a bulkhead or pursuing another type of flood mitigation project along all the shores of his district.  

“It’s a fact of life that we don’t believe we can change,” Chadwick said about sea level rise and flooding. “If you’re going to build down east, you’re going to have to build a little higher.” 

For oceanfront towns, not only are there larger property tax bases and tourism taxes to fund mitigation work, but there’s also more federal money available. Beach nourishment projects, for example, can also be federally subsidized if they’re being completed on public beaches. 

In contrast, the small communities along the inner banks are on their own. “Right now the costs are being borne locally, and that’s not going to be sustainable in the long run for a lot of these communities,” Sweet said. 

ta cedar 04

Wind-driven flooding in Stacy, North Carolina during a 2021 storm // Photos by Andrea Bruce

This year’s state budget offered hope of a change. The Disaster Relief and Recovery section of this year’s state budget included around $300 million for projects and funds to improve flood prevention and resiliency across the state. 

State Senator Jim Perry, a Republican from Kinston, was an advocate of the bipartisan legislation. “Our lives are impacted by this stuff,” Perry said. “We’ve looked into people’s eyes and we’ve seen the devastation in our communities. We want to do something about it.” 

The funding is one of the largest investments towards flood mitigation and resiliency in the state’s history. But for these small communities dealing with daily, wind-driven flooding, it will be only a fraction of what’s needed. 

The Division of Coastal Management, a division of the state’s Department of Environmental Quality, is tasked with helping coastal communities cope with flooding and coastal hazards.   

The Resilient Coastal Communities Program, launched in fall 2020, provides technical assistance for coastal vulnerability assessments in 26 communities along the inner and outer coastline. The fall’s historic state budget investment directed just $1.45 million to the DCM. 

“The level of need certainly exceeds the level of funding we have to offer through this program,” the DCM wrote in an email to The Assembly.

Many of these 26 communities are now using the information collected to identify their most-needed flood mitigation projects. They’ll soon be invited to compete for $3.15 million in grant funding to handle the engineering, design, and construction of these different projects. The available money will be a fragment of what the 26 communities require. 

The DCM’s 2016 pilot program illuminates the extent of the funding gap. Oriental was one of the five communities in the program and identified its first priority to be the replacement of a section of a frequently flooded road, said Town Manager Diane Miller. The cost: $780,000. 

“We have 880 residents, 1,500 boats, a population that swells dramatically in summer, and $2 million to do everything: that’s public works, water, trash, green waste disposal, staff costs, all those things,” Miller said. “So we’re talking about almost half of our annual budget for one project. That’s not in our reach.”

Oriental is a sleepy, tight-knit community of retirees and maritime lovers that explodes with activity in the summer. Summer camps, sailing programs, festivals, and all other sorts of events have put the town on the map as a tourism destination in eastern North Carolina. The locals know everybody in the area, and they welcome visitors in the summer and travelers throughout the rest of the year with open arms.

ta cedar 05

ta cedar 06

Top: A girl walks the water's edge in Oriental, North Carolina; Bottom: Flooding in Stacy, North Carolina // Photos by Andrea Bruce

The $780,000 project that the DCM helped Oriental determine to be their first priority was just that, the first priority. It’s but one of the many coastal resilience needs of the town, and Oriental is but one of the state’s many different communities vying for financial assistance.

Select other state and federal grants exist for coastal resiliency efforts, but Miller explained that these grants can be extremely restrictive and exhausting to navigate and apply for, particularly for small communities like Oriental.

But the stars can align. Oriental, for example, was able to complete their $3.5 million Whittaker Point Shoreline Restoration Project with the help of the NC Coastal Federation by amassing funds from the NCDEQ, the North Carolina Department of Agriculture, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the Golden LEAF Foundation, and the United States Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. 

Securing funds like these is far from an easy task.

“I can do the grant work like a side job here because that was my background,” Miller said. “But there are a lot of small communities where everybody's struggling to keep their head above water. And even if you can secure the money, [the] contracting and procurement is amazingly difficult.”

The hurdles can deter smaller communities from even looking for these funding sources in the first place. 

“The poorer communities that really are in desperate need just do not have the technical expertise to navigate the system and secure the funds,” Miller said. “So then it all goes to the communities that have the resources to fund a singular position that does nothing but that.”

This is why a program like the RCCP, which potentially allows for communities to receive technical or financial assistance for each step of the process with minimal restrictions on what projects they pursue, could spell serious change for a region like the inland coast. The problem, Miller says, is that there just isn’t enough funding to get around to everywhere that needs it. 

“The DCM is doing the best they can with a very limited staff and a very limited budget, but they can’t do it all and they’re not getting the resources to do it all,” Miller said. “If you want to protect the coast, that’s where more money needs to go.”

***

Dair McNinch is a journalism and global studies student at UNC-Chapel Hill from Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina.

Update 3/13: An additional organization was added to the paragraph detailing the coalition that enabled the Whittaker Point Shoreline Restoration Project .