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Salt-water mayors sandbag rising ocean risks

Posted: 08/21/2013 1:00 AM | Comments: 0

Last Modified: 08/21/2013 7:37 AM | Updates

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North Carolina State Rep. Frank Iler (left), Mayor Harry Simmons of Caswell Beach and Mayor Debbie Smith of Ocean Isle Beach discuss coastal erosion.

PHOTO BY ALLEN ABEL Enlarge Image

North Carolina State Rep. Frank Iler (left), Mayor Harry Simmons of Caswell Beach and Mayor Debbie Smith of Ocean Isle Beach discuss coastal erosion.

OCEAN ISLE BEACH, N.C. -- Two salt-water mayors and a state legislator egressed from the Mercedes and urged me to the sea. We walked along a boardwalk that led us to a haunted house that was tilting on stilts above the plangent green ocean, with sandbags where its backyard used to be.

Here, it seemed, was stark proof of a dawning epoch of melting ice caps, millennial warming, raging storms and a rising Atlantic. But the mayors and the solon from the State House of Representatives were quite proudly having none of that.

"Do you want to take our picture with our heads in the sand?" the lawgiver loudly gibed.

He was Frank Iler, the delegate at the capitol in Raleigh from this slice of coastal North Carolina, which is situated about an hour north of the Canadian protectorate of Myrtle Beach. Iler, a Republican, has represented Brunswick County in the House since 2009.

Ocean Isle Beach and its neighbouring idylls of Holden, Caswell, Emerald Isle, Oak Island and Sunset were detached from the mainland decades ago by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers during the construction of the Intracoastal Waterway. They remain relatively pristine by East Coast standards, with no casinos, no roller coasters, manageable crowds, and few mojito bars.

But if you listen to the majority of climatologists, they -- and every other seaside slum and paradise on Earth -- are doomed to gurgle beneath the waves long before our grandchildren learn to tread water.

Back in 2011, when the lawmakers of the Tarheel State debated how to deal with the impact of a rising ocean on coastal development over the next half century, the Senate chose the Howie Mandel Option -- no deal at all. They mandated that communities and developers not take into account any projected rise in mean sea level, leading to this piquant headline in Scientific American: North Carolina Sea Level Rises Despite State Senators.

When the Senate bill reached the House of Representatives, Frank Iler accused an "unelected science panel" of "making rules based on a fantasy basically."

"What we're calling science is not science," Iler said at the time. "I think we need a lot more information before we cost people hundreds of millions of dollars and disrupt everybody's planning and change our whole attitude on permitting."

Two years later, as we sauntered among the sandbags, Iler was telling me that "the general philosophy is that people who think they are smarter than us are thinking they know how to manage the coast better than we do."

In fact, his lower house had watered down the Senate bill, calling only for a four-year moratorium on using sea-rise projections. But this had not had much effect on North Carolina's reputation as the King Canute of the Confederacy, a redneck red state trying to hold back the tides by royal decree.

"In 80,000 years there might be another ice age," Iler said. "Around here, the curve is actually going down."

What about the poor people of Tuvalu? I wondered. This is a low-lying Polynesian micro-state -- population 11,200 -- that will become uninhabitable sometime in the 22nd century if the doomsayers' projections prove true.

"I don't represent them," Iler said.

"It doesn't mean it's not happening," offered another member of our expedition, Harry Simmons, the mayor of Caswell Beach, the president of the American Shore and Beach Preservation Association, and a former business manager of Hootie and the Blowfish. "It's just that it's so minute, you can't see it. If a beach is 150-feet wide and there's a six-inch difference, you don't notice it."

"Do you believe that sea-level is rising due to global climate change?" I asked the third member of our party, Debbie Smith, a real estate agent, the mayor of Ocean Isle Beach (the Mercedes was hers) and a nearly life-long resident of these spectacular though shrinking strands.

"No," Mayor Smith replied. "I've been here 50 years, and you can't really see it."

What we could see was a house at the eastern tip of her island about to experience a bin Laden-like burial at sea. But this, agreed the two salt-water mayors and the state legislator, had nothing to do with climate change and everything to do with erosion. And there was a simple, permanent solution at hand: the construction of offshore barriers called "terminal groins" that would shield the waning spit.

The U.S. Geological Survey, meanwhile, was predicting not only would sea-level soon rise precipitously and globally, the coastline between Massachusetts and North Carolina could be the worst-affected area of all.

"We've got 100 years to plan for it, and we are planning for it," Simmons was saying in response. "If it was going to happen next Sunday, we'd all be screwed."

 

Allen Abel is a Brooklyn-born Canadian journalist based in Washington D.C.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 21, 2013 A9

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Updated on Wednesday, August 21, 2013 at 7:37 AM CDT: adds photo

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