Sunday, July 27, 2014

Building a tourism industry on shifting sands

In Matthew's Gospel, Jesus calls a man who builds his house on the sand "foolish." But if he has government-subsidized flood insurance and other disaster insurance and can make money on increasingly scarce and increasingly coveted waterfront property, maybe he's not so foolish.

This National Geographic article does a good job of explaining the dilemma of coastal development in an age of sea-level rise. The topic is especially volatile in North Carolina, where beachfront property and the associated tourism industry drives the state's economy. Down at the beach, where fishing is not as profitable as it once was, beach rentals, beach stores, restaurants, and beach real estate constitute a multi-billion dollar business. It's no wonder that people get upset when scientists talk about abandoning the Outer Banks to let the barrier islands reconstitute themselves as they migrate westward.

But the rise of the sea, the narrowing of beach fronts, and the shifting of the sand islands seem inevitable. One does not have to have a long memory to remember beaches that were far wider than they are today. At many beaches, the protective dunes have disappeared, and porches or entire houses are falling into the surf.

The photos accompanying the National Geographic article are especially convincing: The beach is moving beneath our feet and beneath the pilings that support the houses we like to rent and enjoy. The photo of N.C. 12 following Hurricane Irene, which severed Hatteras Island in five places, shows the futility of maintaining a major roadway built on shifting sands.

When I traveled to the Outer Banks a few months ago, I traversed the temporary bridge that carried automobile traffic over an inlet that had not been there a few years ago. As I drove, the ocean poured beneath the raised road, and the wind blew away the protective dunes. Looking out at the ocean and the salt spray mixed with sand that churned the air, I had no confidence that the highway could win its battle against the sea.

North Carolina is defined in part by the Outer Banks, jutting out like a too-prominent chin into the Graveyard of the Atlantic, making a prodigious target for hurricanes and tropical storms traveling from the Caribbean northward. Beaches provide the only reliable economic engine in eastern North Carolina, where tobacco and pine trees no longer drive the economy, small towns wither and unemployment is often twice the state average.

North Carolina cannot afford to abandon its beaches, but as the National Geographic's graphic shows, a one-meter rise in sea level will sink long stretches of the Outer Banks, changing the state's shape. The state's role should not be to simply rebuild N.C. 12 each time a storm rolls over it but to find ways to help the tourism industry adjust to the changes that surely seem inevitable. 

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