String of Pearls

A string of pearls sounds like a beautiful object, a treasure linked by carefully knotted strands to frame tanned skin and decorate a fine-boned neckline.  Except that in North Carolina, the string of pearls is the series of barrier islands and inlets and the string is unraveling, as intense storms like Hurricane Matthew, and sea level rise, claim the roads and bridges that connect the vacation destinations and villages along the coastline.

The photos from this most recent storm are interchangeable with those from Hurricane Katrina, or Sandy – the coastal road eroded, piers and trees snapped and scattered, evidence of the force of wind and water upon the built environment.  Residents who chose not to evacuate are now stranded without power or supplies until help arrives from the outside, perhaps days after the storm has blown out to sea.  This remoteness contributes to the appeal of these places as a retreat – wild, green places, where busy executives from Atlanta or Charlotte come to escape emails and meetings.  But now the separation from civilization has a sinister cast, one which threatens both the immediate survival of those holdouts, and the long-term viability of their outposts.

A natural coastal system is robust.  It depends on storms to build barrier islands, deposit new sand, scour temporary blockages, and flush out stagnant coastal lakes.  In contrast, the fixed structures imposed on these landscapes are fragile, our human attempts at definition at risk.  The effort to create permanent roads and bridges and cities in an era of rapid environmental change has a limited economic value.

The alternative is to create temporary sacrificial points along the shifting sands, without any sort of infrastructural connection.  Retreat marks the economically sound future: in the short term it may only be seasonal, but as storms and flooding accelerate, inland locations will be desirable year-round, transitioning to a more permanent solution.  The barrier islands and peninsulas can revert to their wilder history as environmental playgrounds, with fat-tired bicycles on unpaved trails, temporary pavilions for overnights, wildlife tours to rival the jungles usually found on islands far to the south.

If there is higher ground, self-sufficient spines can remain, much like we proposed for New Jersey’s Long Beach Island during Rebuild by Design.  A raised boardwalk clings to the highest ground incorporating infrastructure, retail, lodging, and services, with ferry connections to the mainland.  Seasonal coastal economies dependent upon tourism may find this a strategic vision for the future – reducing their defensible footprint to one which can be shuttered in advance of storms and throughout the off-season.

Acknowledging the climate is changing leads to a clear understanding: without accommodation, every season will be an off-season.  In North Carolina, approximately 25 miles of the Outer Banks’ highway connections were threatened by erosion before Hurricane Matthew; in the past 25 years, the number of beach communities requiring regular beach renourishment has been multiplied by ten.  FEMA has suffered from budget shortfalls for many years, and it is not difficult to imagine that the resources necessary to recover from Matthew will be spread thinly across five states.

In dynamic systems, rapid adaptation pays off.  Will North Carolina become the first to resist the “build-it-back” scenario, and opt for a more sustainable future?