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Coastal Resiliency

Editorial: Outer Banks home collapses are a major wake-up call for Va.

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BeachHouse

These are the remnants of a beach house that recently collapsed along the Outer Banks in Rodanthe, N.C.

Coastal residents in Virginia and North Carolina recently woke up to a series of warnings.

On May 7, the National Weather Service’s forecast office in Wakefield said a “significant coastal storm” was coming, with a chance of “moderate to major tidal flooding, high winds along the coast, and high seas/rough surf.” The Virginia Department of Emergency Management sent out its own memo later in the day, urging people to check 511Virginia.org before leaving their homes, and to never drive in high water or along flooded roadways.

These terms and guidelines likely are familiar to longtime residents — and any groups of climate-conscious people — who have seen their communities grapple with such conditions. But our collective attention toward coastal resiliency surged on May 10, when incredible video surfaced of not one but two homes along North Carolina’s Outer Banks collapsing on the same day.

Such images of loss should make our heads spin. This is a major wake-up call for Virginia. Coastal resiliency measures cannot wait.

A Winston-Salem Journal report noted the Outer Banks homes were located at 24235 and 24265 Ocean Drive in Rodanthe, N.C. — just off of the main state Route 12 corridor. A third home on Ocean Drive recently fell on Feb. 9.

“Unfortunately, there may be more houses that collapse onto Seashore beaches in the near future,” David Hallac, superintendent of National Parks of Eastern North Carolina, said in the Journal’s report. “We proactively reached out to homeowners along Ocean Drive in Rodanthe after the first house collapse and recommended that actions be taken to prevent collapse and impacts to Cape Hatteras National Seashore.”

Homeowners alone won’t solve climate-related issues that coastal communities are facing. Elected leaders have to step up and act

A little more than a month ago, North Carolina Department of Transportation officials celebrated the opening of the new Rodanthe Bridge. Per an April report from WFAE radio (Charlotte’s NPR affiliate), the $155 million, 2.4-mile project was built to replace a stretch of Highway 12 that “often washes out during storms.” It’s also worth noting local residents unsuccessfully sued to stop the project, citing environmental concerns and a lack of consideration for alternatives.

At a ribbon-cutting event, the official NCDOT Twitter account for Highway 12 said, “The bridge will be vital to keeping #NC12 a reliable transportation corridor for Outer Banks travelers.” Think about it: It now costs hundreds of millions of dollars, just to build a small climate-driven workaround to keep tourism (and its associated economic impact) going.

Virginia has its own set of challenging circumstances. Earlier this month, The National Trust for Historic Preservation placed Jamestown on its 2022 list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. More than 400 years after the founding of North America’s first permanent English colony, sea level rise, storms and flooding threaten its future.

In 2019, the last full year before the COVID-19 pandemic, 536,496 people visited the Jamestown Settlement and the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown. Their trips yielded almost $6 million in admissions revenue.

Due to tidal flooding earlier this week, the Jamestown-Scotland Ferry had to operate at limited capacity. In Norfolk, video from WAVY-TV showed high water near the Chrysler Museum of Art. The city of Virginia Beach opened Oceanfront garages to help people find higher ground for their cars.

These developments came just shy of May 15 — six months since the passage of the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. The bill included $47 billion toward climate resiliency, the largest-ever set of federal spending on the issue, The New York Times reported.

But National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration figures show the U.S. has endured 89 billion-dollar weather and climate disasters over the past five years alone. Considering that fact, the recent IIJA batch of resiliency funding looks like a drop in the bucket.

“The nation’s infrastructure of the future needs to be climate smart, climate ready, and climate resilient to prepare communities for the on the ground impacts of increasingly intense precipitation, hurricanes, flooding, drought, extreme heat, and fire weather events,” NOAA Administrator Rick Spinrad said after the bill passed.

The on-the-ground impacts already are here. Also in November 2021, Virginia Beach voters passed a local bond referendum for a $567 million Flood Protection Program. Several phase one projects already have been identified, from drainage upgrades to culvert improvements.

Today, it’s two homes in a neighboring state. What will our response be if there ever comes a day where one of Virginia’s largest metro area sees large-scale damage? This should serve as a major wake-up call for the commonwealth. Now is the time to act.

— Chris Gentilviso

Chris Gentilviso is Opinions editor. Contact him at: cgentilviso@timesdispatch.com

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