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Research and Innovation

Seeking Inclusive Strategies To Help Coastal Communities Adjust, Plan for Sea-Level Rise

Flooding sign in Railroad, North Carolina.
Flooding sign in Railroad, North Carolina. Credit: Erin Seekamp.

Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series highlighting NC State research into how sea-level rise is impacting people and the environment along the coast.

Recurring flood damage to homes and powerful storms that threaten infrastructure are realities facing many coastal North Carolina communities. However, for three predominately African-American, rural communities near the coast, NC State researchers documented additional injustices that threaten the communities’ ability to adapt to a changing climate.

In their study, the researchers reported on efforts to help these communities think about how to adapt to sea-level rise, flooding and other climate change impacts. They found that inequalities, economic limitations and injustices facing these communities can make residents feel vulnerable to climate impacts, and unheard in local planning and recovery efforts.

Their findings, published in the journal Land Use Policy, highlight the need for policymakers and researchers to work with affected coastal communities using strategies that are racially and economically inclusive.

“We need more research that uncovers climate injustices that exist in climate change adaption planning efforts, and that helps us to enhance community resilience,” said study co-author Erin Seekamp, professor of parks, recreation and tourism management at NC State. “Many residents have strong social bonds and deep connections to coastal landscapes, and leaving isn’t a desired option. Yet, human health issues are a concern as residents face mold and failing septic systems due to flooding and rising water tables.”

The Abstract spoke to Seekamp about the study:

The Abstract: Why did you study communities in Tyrrell and Washington counties in North Carolina?

Seekamp: Tyrrell and Washington counties are home to some of the lowest lying, rural areas in coastal North Carolina. Many of the communities are dependent on the region’s natural resources for their livelihoods through forestry, agriculture and nature-based tourism.

They are already experiencing some of the effects of a changing climate, including recurrent flooding, marsh migration and increasing salinity in the groundwater and soils that is reducing agricultural production and forest health. They’re also seeing coastal subsidence, meaning the land is sinking and slipping into the Albemarle and Pamlico sounds.

There also isn’t the same type of tourism visitation as there is in Dare County to the Outer Banks beaches. The relatively low population in the region also means that there is a more limited tax base to implement adaptation solutions.

TA: What challenges do these communities face for climate change adaptation?

Seekamp: People in the region are at a disadvantage for climate change adaptation and planning. The current structure of most federal and state programs – and funding mechanisms – are focused on urban centers and major tourism destinations.

Adaptation strategies supported by those programs, such as beach nourishment or sea walls, typically have unintended negative consequences to areas that rely on marshes to reduce wave energy and mitigate some effects of storms like hurricanes.

Many of these rural coastal communities – particularly communities of color – are also experiencing demographic changes that challenge their ability to prepare and adapt.

Even more troubling is that adaptation planning and outreach activities aren’t reaching some of the smaller communities.

Yet, even when they haven’t received climate change education, they already know they live in vulnerable locations. They can tell you exactly the extent of flooding that happened from past storms by pointing out where the flood waters rose to in their homes. They can tell you that drainage ditches that used to be maintained to help “move the water out” aren’t maintained much anymore. And, they can tell you that they don’t feel like they have a voice in planning or recovery efforts.

TA: Are there other barriers you documented?

Seekamp: In addition to the counties having a limited tax base to support community-driven planning and adaptation efforts, there are barriers for people to participate in planning efforts. They’re often held during working hours or in the early evening. With some jobs being a one- to two-hour commute one way, attending isn’t an option. And, many people told us that they have stopped attending because they are never heard when they do attend.

Additionally, the inability of many residents to continually meet changing flood insurance requirements means that when recovery support arrives, the only choice presented is forced migration, which is unacceptable. There is a strong sense of place and reliance on community ties and support.

It’s clear that past decisions and current policies are disproportionately impacting communities of color and that structural change in adaptation and recovery efforts is needed.

TA: What is the Rural Coastal Community Resilience (RCCR) framework, and how did you use it in this study?

Seekamp: The RCCR framework is a tool, developed by Matthew Jurjonas during his doctoral studies at NC State, to have conversations about community perceptions about vulnerability and resilience to climate change threats.

In community workshops, we work with coastal science specialists with NC Sea Grant to provide information about climate change and the threats facing the community. Then, we lead community members through an activity to evaluate whether their community is prepared to plan for and adapt to climate change threats, and discussions about their ratings. At the end of the workshop, we have them re-evaluate and rate their adaptive capacity again.

What we weren’t expecting was that in workshops with predominately non-Hispanic white community members, the conversation highlighted things they could do to build their capacity to adapt. In workshops with predominately African-American communities, the conversation highlighted their vulnerability – especially their feelings of lack of agency or self-efficacy – and their inability to build adaptive capacity without the support of an external champion.

TA: What is the need for better engaging these communities?  

Seekamp: We need new strategies for communicating climate science and identifying community strengths that can be leveraged to build adaptive capacity. This includes training on inclusiveness and implicit bias for researchers and outreach specialists, as well as for local and county government leaders. It also means a more concerted effort to collaborate with local residents on research and planning efforts, including ensuring representation on research teams and planning committees. This could support development of culturally appropriate outreach and engagement efforts that are led by community members themselves.