Swansboro Commissioner Frank Tursi is in the midst of some pretty important planning processes. The mayor pro-tem is not only serving as chairman of the Comprehensive Land-Use Plan Update; he is also a part of the VCaps (Vulnerability Consequences and Adaptation Planning Scenario) Process.
For the past several months, he would say to anyone listening just how important planning is to the town.
“We are trying to make Swansboro better prepared for the future,” he said.
Tursi – pointing to a recent report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit group formed decades ago by MIT professors committed to using science to solve a variety of issues – believes there is a sense of urgency to the town’s planning process.
“The data set isn’t perfect,” Tursi said of the report, even so, the findings are alarming.
He explained findings are based on a worst-case scenario – a sea-level rise of 7 feet by the year 2100 – to indicate by ZIP code where high tide flooding, or “chronic inundation,” might occur. An area facing chronic inundation is any area that experiences flooding 21 times or more in a year.
By the year 2030, 6,300 homes in North Carolina and 60 in the 28584 ZIP code will face chronic inundation, the study indicates. In 2060, the number rises to 31,000 statewide, 230 local; in 2080, 46,000 statewide, 404 local; and in 2100, 99,000 statewide and 608 local.
Tursi said the findings are based on the number of 2018 households. “It doesn’t assume any growth.” So, things could be worse.
The study indicates that the number of people affected – “climate refugees,” forced to leave their homes due to chronic flooding – will be substantial. In 2030, there will be 7,600 in North Carolina and of those, 108 will from the 28584 ZIP code: in 2060, there will be 41,000 statewide and 416 in the 28584 ZIP code; in 2080, 68,000 statewide, 730 local; and in 2100, 140,000 statewide and 1,100 local.
He considers sea-level rise to be a real problem. “I’m sure that damage from high tide flooding is certainly on the rise.”
It has already created problems in North Carolina and elsewhere on the nation’s coasts. Tursi points to Manteo, which has experienced problems dealing with high tides, as has the Norfolk area and South Florida.
As the problems begin to manifest elsewhere, governments – even those populated by folks who do not believe in sea-level rise – will be forced to act.
“What do we do when our tax base is flooded away?” Tursi asked. “It is incumbent on us as community leaders to better prepare us, to try to do something.”
The first step is determining what is at risk. The VCaps process is putting Swansboro in a good place, as far as that is concerned.
And Tursi makes no bones about it; he credits the election of Democrat Roy Cooper with allowing this study, and studies like it, to proceed. Previously, he said there was a lack of will on the part of the elected state leadership to tackle this issue. Instead, it was treated as if it didn’t exist.
“This is the first time the state has done this. Two years ago, this study wouldn’t have happened,” Tursi said. “The election of Cooper … has freed up the state agencies to do the work they should be doing.”
Tursi said he was grateful the state has chosen to fund the VCaps process – “It is the most pressing issue facing us” – through the Division of Coastal Management. This study will identify areas in the town that are most at risk, most likely to experience chronic inundation, to rising sea level. The areas include everything from sewer lift stations to schools that might serve as shelters during hurricanes.
Tursi, who studied geology in college and spent a career as a journalist covering matters of science, said the issue at hand is not a political one.
“Physics doesn’t care,” he explained. “If the glaciers melt, the seas rise. At some point our politicians will come around. We will eventually have to act.”
State officials sought Swansboro out to undergo the VCaps process for a couple of reasons, according to Tursi. The town was involved in updating its land-use plan so the timing was right for VCaps study to take place along with it. Also, Tursi and Andrea Correll, town planner, have recently taken part in seminars concerning problems associated with sea-level rise.
“Thankfully, the board agreed,” Tursi said. “We’re getting a great deal of expertise, helping us to prepare for a dire situation and it’s not going to cost us anything. I’m thankful for that.
Correll said the list of participants pitching in for the Swansboro VCaps process is impressive. Included are the N.C. Division of Coastal Management, N.C. State University’s Sea Grant, the N.C. Coastal Federation and the Nature Conservancy. “We did not expect this national organization to help,” she said,
At issue is protection of assets.
“I think what we’re seeing with the VCaps is the first step,” Tursi said. “As this issue gets worse, you won’t be able to ignore it anymore.
“The tax value is too important. It’s not something local governments can ignore. They will have to act.”
Chronic inundation is not necessarily limited to the immediate coastline, according to Tursi. In Onslow County, the areas that will see the most damaging effects the soonest are Holly Ridge and Sneads Ferry, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists data.
Lending institutions and insurance companies will take note. He said it would be difficult to finance or insure properties that are likely to be flooded.
“You can’t hide from it,” Tursi said. “The best thing we can do is be prepared for it.”
Analyzing flood risks –identifying key infrastructure and producing maps – is a goal of the VCaps that will allow the community to understand where there is open area that could help lower the risks of flooding on developed areas.
The study will also serve to provide some level of education for the public on what’s to come with sea level rise. Tursi said there would be an effort to engage the public through open meetings.
The study should wrap up in time for the findings to be included in the LUP update, approximately December.
“Then, it becomes a matter of political will … what the board – through the town’s citizens – is willing to do,” Tursi said. “What the first steps will be, I don’t know. I would be willing to change the development ordinance.”
But, he added, “It will depend on public support and political will. There are limits to what we’re going to be able to do, based on the law and based on money. We’ll all be looking for easy stuff. Doing the VCaps will be a start, we can determine how secure we are.”
For more on this story, purchase a copy of the Aug. 1, 2018, Tideland News.