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Growing cost of beach repair should spark action

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Hurricane Florence caused significant beach erosion at Atlantic Beach.

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Saturday, February 9, 2019

This is the time of year when we start thinking about those spring, summer and fall trips to the beach. As we endure winter’s alternating personalities, we look ahead with a smile to days or weeks along the shore.

But for people who live their lives by the sea, this is a time for different concerns — like worrying about the quality of those beaches and how small towns can afford the big prices on beach maintenance. It’s also a time when most people who live by the sea are wondering, more and more, about how they can afford to stay.

The big dredge and heavy equipment have arrived in New Hanover County, where an $18 million beach renourishment project is about to begin. It’s a regular event in the towns of Carolina and Kure Beach, as it is in most of the East Coast’s communities with sandy beaches.

Storms take a heavy toll. So do currents that run along the shoreline. It’s normal — barrier beaches naturally move and change configuration with tides, currents and storms. But when billions of dollars’ worth of real estate sits on those beaches, government works to protect them, periodically pumping sand off the ocean floor and onto eroding beaches.

That’s an especially big project this year, because Hurricane Matthew in 2016 and Hurricane Florence last year washed away beaches and sand dunes behind them in many places.

Next month, a big beach restoration project will begin in Carteret County, where they’ll pump more than 900,000 cubic yards of sand onto hurricane-depleted beaches. That only begins to undo damage from Hurricane Florence, which washed away about 3.2 million cubic yards of sand.

The cost of these restoration projects is covered by a variety of sources, including local taxpayer money, some state funding, the Army Corps of Engineers budget and sometimes the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Much of the coastal economy is tied to the condition of the beaches, and when a hurricane washes the sand away, it can destroy a tourism economy.

A ProPublica report last year estimated that in North Carolina, federal, state and local governments have spent nearly $850 million to rebuild beaches since 1939.

Meanwhile, coastal property owners are reeling from news that homeowner and commercial building insurance premiums may skyrocket this year. Home insurers in North Carolina were allowed to raise premiums by nearly 5 percent last year. This year, they’re seeking an average 17 percent boost, citing damage done by Hurricane Florence, as well as overall trends related to climate change.

Some coastal experts say it’s time for the population to begin moving back from the beaches. The costs of continually rebuilding beaches, homes, commercial properties, highways and other infrastructure is growing steadily and at some point will be unsupportable.

We doubt most people in coastal communities are ready to take that advice, but it is time for them — and for government at all levels — to take a hard look at rising sea levels and the incidence of more and stronger storms and calculate the costs going forward.

Shoveling sand against the tide has always been an apt metaphor for futility. And now, along much of our coastline, it’s a way of life. How long can afford it? What can we do to strengthen infrastructure? And who’s going to pay those bills going forward? We need to have that conversation.

The Fayetteville Observer

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Humans of Greenville

@HumansofGville

Local photographer Joe Pellegrino explores Greenville to create a photographic census of its people.

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