Underwater? Increasing Risks for North Carolina’s Coastal Communities

About the Author

Brian Dabson


Brian Dabson, Research Fellow at the School of Government, focuses on community and economic development, community and regional resilience, and entrepreneurship.

$465 million. That is the estimated market value of real-estate lost between 2005 and 2016 in Florida’s Miami-Dade area. The cause? Rising sea-levels and the resulting tidal flooding and hurricane storm surge, according to a recent peer-reviewed study by Steven McAlpine and Jeremy Porter of Columbia University. The same methodology was extended to coastal areas in the rest of Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia in an analysis published by the First Street Foundation. The lost market real-estate value in North Carolina in the same period is estimated to be $582 million, with Hatteras ($19.6 million), North Topsail Beach ($17 million) and Ocracoke ($16.2 million) topping the list of communities most impacted. The authors point to the emergence of “climate gentrification” as property values increase for higher elevation homes and decrease for lower-lying areas.

These data coincide with the publication by the Union of Concerned Scientists of a forward-looking analysis of the likely impact of sea-level rise on real estate through the rest of this century. The report estimates the number of homes and commercial properties at risk of chronic inundation (26 floods per year) and presents data on numbers of properties, their market value, their property tax levels, and the number of people at risk for every coastal county (and community) for the years 2045 and 2100. It is important to note that these estimates do not consider the effects of hurricanes and major storms.

Within 27 years, shorter than the period of standard mortgage, the researchers estimate that 22 North Carolina counties in total will see 22,914 people and 15,492 homes at risk with a property value of $3.9 billion that yield $25 million in property taxes. Six counties could be significantly impacted, as shown in the table.


County Homes at Risk Property Value Property Tax Population
  No. % Total $M %Total $M %Total No. %Total
Brunswick 1,327 1.7 513.7 3.0 3.0 2.8 1,492 1.4
Carteret 2,019 4.8 625.7 5.8 2.7 6.1 2,816 4.3
Currituck 1,205 8.3 251.8 5.3 1.3 5.1 2,308 9.8
Dare 3,650 10.8 1,131.6 9.5 7.0 9.0 3,462 10.2
Hyde 1,294 62.3 194.7 65.4 1.3 67.0 2,110 36.4
Tyrell 957 37.8 77.4 30.2 0.6 32.1 1,753 40.2

Dare and Carteret Counties could suffer the greatest effects in numbers of homes and the associated property values, but Hyde and Tyrell will be most badly impacted in terms of the proportion of the population, homes, property values, and property taxes at risk. An important caveat from the Union of Concerned Scientists is that local conditions, including existing or planned mitigation and adaptation measures, may serve to lower the risk levels in some locations. However, continuing development trends that lead to more construction in vulnerable areas will place more people and homes at risk.

Do the authors of these studies offer any possible solutions? Here are some:

  1. Federal disaster aid should be accompanied by explicit incentives to reduce residents’ and businesses’ exposure to risks, including home buyouts, investments in flood-proofing, and requirements to purchase flood insurance.
  2. Federal, state, and local policies should recognize coastal flood risk as a predictable and slow-moving disaster and ramp-up investments in pre-disaster and flood mitigation measures.
  3. The National Flood Insurance Program should be substantially re-designed, away from subsidies for homeowners in flood-prone areas and distortion of actual risks that lead to repeated payouts, to a program that effectively communicates flood risks, protects communities and promotes better flood plain management.
  4. There should be a federal flood risk management standard that mandates that all federal investments consider future flood risks to protect infrastructure, ensure wise use of taxpayer dollars, and guide communities. This extends to deterring questionable coastal development and stronger protective building standards and coastal zone management regulations to encourage flood resilience in floodplains, wetlands, and barrier islands.
  5. There should be increased funding for voluntary home buyout programs to help homeowners move to safer locations, and aid to communities in high risk areas to manage the adaptation processes, particularly for the most vulnerable members of the population.
  6. Banks, insurers, real estate developers, and other financial actors should establish guidelines and standards to incorporate sea-level rise into their business models to better serve the long-term interests of their clients.

What we do know from our experience with successive hurricanes and major floods is that that the worst time to think clearly about individual and community action is when the floodwaters are washing through homes and businesses. The best time is before it happens, but if these studies are to be believed time is running out for 15,000 homes in North Carolina.


2 Responses to “Underwater? Increasing Risks for North Carolina’s Coastal Communities”

  1. Ricardo Bowen


    Thank you so much for the article, it was a lovely read. I agree that to find solutions to vulnerable communities who at are risk to rising sea levels, we need focus on individuals and communities to take action, but policymakers are essential as well. My name is Ricardo Bowen, I am studying my masters at the University of Copenhagen in the department of Political Science. My masters thesis focuses on developing a deep understanding in climate gentrification and vulnerability of coastal communities in North Carolina. I would like to ask if it is possible to protect vulnerable communities on the coast with a policy recommendation.

    I would like to ask if the author Brian Dabson would be willing to meet and discuss my theis with him. Is there any way that I could contact him?

    Best regards,

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