Shared from the 12/6/2019 The Denver Post eEdition By Jeffrey Collins The Associated Press
￼SWANSBORO, N.C.»Historic cities and towns along the Southeastern U.S. coast have survived wars, hurricanes, disease outbreaks and other calamities, but now that sea levels are creeping up with no sign of stopping, they face a more existential crisis.
With a total annual budget of $225 million, Charleston, S.C., can’t afford the billions of dollars to save itself without federal help. It’s counting on the Army Corps of Engineers to help surround its downtown peninsula with seawalls, harkening to the barriers the city built when it was founded 350 years ago.
Keeping water off the streets and buildings is even more difficult for smaller towns such as Swansboro, N.C., with 3,200 people and a $4 million budget that doesn’t account for climate-related sea rise.
The most vulnerable coastal communities sit only a few feet above sea level and are getting wet at some high tides. Scientists estimate the sea will rise 2 feet to 4 feet in the next 50 years.
Municipal leaders say they need billions of state and federal dollars to save block after city block of low-lying homes and businesses. And while even climate change-denying politicians are beginning to acknowledge the inevitable onslaught, city officials worry that those who control the purse strings won’t see the urgency of a slowly unfolding catastrophe that’s not like a tornado or earthquake.
Founded in 1783, Swansboro became the center of North Carolina’s steamboat industry. Across its quaint downtown on the White Oak River, almost every building boasts a city seal with the date it was built. Most are much older than the gray-haired tourists strolling around, and they can’t withstand forever the kind of flooding they suffered last year during Hurricane Florence.
Stunned, the town commissioned a report for the future. It said the water’s edge may end up a block or two inland from the historic waterfront.
“There will need to be political stressors to get people to understand the importance of climate change,” said Beaufort, N.C., Mayor Rett Newton.
The historic buildings along Beaufort’s waterfront are gleaming now, reflecting millions in new investment. People wealthy enough to buy waterfront property can move, Newton said, but escaping the seas will be much harder for poorer residents, who often live on low-lying land handed down through generations, are already beset by social and economic problems.
“I can’t tax anyone else. At the local level, we can’t tax our way out of this,” Newton said, noting his town of 4,200 people collects about $3.5 million a year in taxes.