Most at Risk for Erasure from Climate Change

Up and down the coast of the Carolinas, the iconic seaside towns are facing a brutal storm. Their residents, restauranteurs, and local government staff are holding their collective breath to see what will be left after Hurricane Florence. They know what we all know now—the storm’s waves and wind will likely bring large scale destruction. Local and national media are covering Florence by breathlessly reporting from the water’s edge, while we nervously watch the waves crash behind them on the screen.

Ironically, small, rural communities further inland may have more to lose in the changing climate. The drama of the destruction at the coast overshadows the deep vulnerability of communities that lie in the inner coastal plains of both the Carolinas – flat expanses of agricultural land and swamps that many people only see on their way to or from the coast itself. These areas sit downstream of large watersheds further upland. Their financial and political resources pale in comparison to coastal communities.

Seven Springs, a tiny town in Wayne County, North Carolina, is such a town. Located on the Neuse River, it boasts natural springs it was named after. It was the site of a Civil War battle, and later home to two private resorts built over the springs.  Hurricane Floyd flooded almost every home in town in 1999, and as much as a third of the original population did not return to rebuild. In 2016, floodwater returned with Hurricane Matthew. Painstakingly, some houses have come back online. Another blow from Hurricane Florence could be a lot to overcome.

While these rural places may not face the fury of the ocean’s winds and surge, they also lack the tourism revenue and iconic landmarks that help generate justification for rebuilding roads, bridges, businesses and homes after repeated storms. After Hurricane Florence, most will make some kind of recovery due to the hard work of residents, tireless commitment from leaders, and, one hopes, external support from volunteers, nonprofits, foundations, and public agencies. But some residents will walk away from the damage and the trauma of the storm, and few outsiders will have a reason to take their places.

Small towns in the rural eastern Carolina countryside have deep local histories and many residents can trace generations of their family in the same area. These are towns with historic houses of worship; towns founded by African American freedmen and towns organized by slave-owning plantations; and communities with continuous occupation since the Ice Age. This region funded the development of our big cities through lumber, cotton and tobacco trade. Their stories continue to unfold as Latino immigrants, originally drawn to the area by farm work, set roots. There are so many pasts in these places, many marginalized by racial and cultural oppression. With climate change, these places may have histories that the rest of the world will never learn.

Rural towns in the eastern Carolinas have survived many floods. Locals—or maybe their grandparents—can use a local landmark to tell you how high the water came. They will describe the faithful labor that restored the town. The problem is that the floods are more frequent, now, likely the result of both increased development upstream and climate change. In 2015, October floods in South Carolina caused widespread flash flooding to places from Columbia to the coast. In 2016, Hurricane Matthew brought rising rivers to a broad swath of low-lying towns in Eastern North Carolina. A complete disaster recovery does not happen in two or three years. Many homes in these places have temporary fixes or remain unfit for living, and another round of floodwater could cause property owners to lose hope (or run out of money).

 Princeville, NC, 9/16/1999: Volunteers from the Cane Creek Baptist Church support cleanup efforts following Hurricane Floyd. Photo Credit: Photo by Dave Gatley/ FEMA News Photo. 

Some hazards specialists argue that rebuilding in these disaster-prone areas is folly, at least in theory. And there is truth to this point – we have limited resources and, with increasing hazards, it is unwise to continue to spend public money on recovery in places that are likely to get hit by similar disasters again. However, decisions about whether to spend money to rebuild are made in thousands of different contexts by nearly as many people, and “wise” isn’t always the first criterion. The result is happenstance and dictated as much as politics and wealth than by social, land use, or historic considerations. Because small, inland communities may not hold as much political or financial capital, they are at very high risk of shrinking off the map with repeated storms.

Yet these communities provide physical, social and spiritual homes. We owe it to those residents, and their ancestors, to have thoughtful conversations about where to rebuild and what should be left behind to nature. We also have many more resources than ever before to preserve the histories and stories of places that may succumb to climate change. We owe it to ourselves to hear, and sustain, the memories of communities most at risk from erasure due to climate change.  

Featured Image: Pollocksville, NC, 09/16/1999: Residents watch rising waters from Hurricane Floyd near their town next to a boarded up local business. Photo Credit: Sgt. 1st Class Eric Wedeking/ FEMA.

About the Author: Amanda Martin, AICP, is a PhD candidate at UNC Chapel Hill. She is passionate about disaster recovery, climate resilience, and community development. Her dissertation uses a social justice lens to examine post-disaster buyouts. Amanda holds a Master in City Planning from MIT, and you can follow her tweets on these topics at @bornonland


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