Tag Archives: Chincoteague VA

East coast climate change and sea level rise – Motts Creek NJ, Ocracoke NC and Chincoteague VA

I live 18 miles from the beach in NJ. I’ve kept an eye on sea level rise for a long time, having rented a home on Brigantine Island for two years (1976 to 1978) and lived here in the Pinelands coastal plain for forty years, since 1978. I would have evacuated once from Brigantine, but the storm came through when I was out of town. What I remember in the aftermath was the salt hay all over the streets and lawns, and a population explosion of crickets. My current residence is more than 40 feet above sea level.

What do I think is going to happen along the East Coast as sea level rises?

Let’s start with a very small community. You won’t find Motts Creek listed as a municipality in New Jersey. It’s a neighborhood Galloway Township. I’m sure most Galloway residents never heard of it. Two friends of mine lived there in the past, both in rentals. A single road juts out into the salt marsh, and leads to Motts Creek Inn. The Inn thrives on being accessible by boat. On my recent visit, in November, the Inn was open but very quiet. A septic pumping truck sat in the parking lot. We passed about two dozen homes on the way in. Some have been elevated on pilings, and others appear to have been abandoned after Hurricane Sandy in 2012. I estimate the year round population to be less than 100. I believe new construction along Motts Creek Road stopped around 30 years ago, when NJ wetlands were protected. Motts Creek properties are desirable for their boat docks, fine view and bird watching potential and undesirable for mosquitos, flies and flooding. I believe the area is unsewered and served by septic tanks. What does the future hold? I assume federal flood insurance still protects property owners. It’s hard to imagine Galloway Township and New Jersey going to great lengths to protect Motts Creek. I expect it will be lost to sea level rise before too many decades pass.

Ocracoke is on my mind because I just returned from spending Thanksgiving week on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, in the town of Nags Head in a rented beachfront property. Ocracoke is a barrier island south of Nags Head. It’s reachable only by (car) ferry. I found population figures of 948 in 2010 and 591 in 2014 (both from Wikipedia). Ocracoke is unincorporated, but the federal government grants it the status of a “census-designated place”. (I have no idea what this means.) It does suggest Ocracoke has a little more “official” status than Motts Creek. Ocracoke was first permanently settled in 1750, has had a varied economy (shipping, fishing, tourism) and was home to a distinct dialect (accent?) sometimes referred to as High Tider. My point? Ocracoke has a culture. Something substantive will be lost if it is abandoned. (This can be said of many places, up to and including New Orleans.)

On September 6 of this year, Ocracoke was savaged by Hurricane Dorian. The storm surge was 2.5 feet higher than any previous storm, and the water rose fast. Some residents had evacuated, and all those who remained managed to survive. I picked up a copy of the Ocracoke Observer when I was in Nags Head, wanting to see what the community had to say about itself, since I couldn’t go and visit it.

Ocracoke was CLOSED. That’s an advantage of recovery on an island! Officials can shut the door. The island reopened to the public on December 5. Some observations:

  • The concept of post-storm planning has been around for years, but it really hasn’t been implemented anywhere. So Ocracoke is making its recovery up as it goes along.
  • Ocracoke is re-building. This is a point of pride and determination. But how much of whose money should be invested in restoring a place that’s in the crosshairs? Should a house be rebuilt more than once?
  • How different can a place be before it’s a new place? How do we value a “community” with little or no year-round population? Is a house on Ocracoke a “home” or an “investment”?
  • Some people and businesses are doing better (8 weeks out) than they initially expected. Others are finding that the damage was far worse than they thought.
  • Why, in a community with low population, where everyone knows each other, was it necessary to impose a curfew and alcohol sales ban? Hmmm…
  • Ocracoke got lots of help from various efficient and hard working non-profit volunteers, and the community is grateful.
  • If Ocracoke had to depend on its “own” resources, I don’t think it would survive. With state and federal help, I expect it will.

Regardless of how Ocracoke moves ahead, the whole Outer Banks (and New Jersey’s barrier islands) need some rethinking. How long will we continue to build and rebuild upon sand? Nags Head and Kitty Hawk are CRAMMED with businesses and rental properties. To me, evacuation looks like a major challenge. Nice place to visit. I wouldn’t want to own there.

On to Chincoteague. Of the three areas discussed here, this is the one to which I feel most emotionally attached. Yes, I read Misty of Chincoteague as a child. I first visited in the 1970s, going back almost every year since, always in the off season, usually October or November.

We went, initially, to enjoy nature at the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge during the fall bird migration. What a wonderful place! I’ve walked the beach and bicycled around the ponds and hiked the trails. Sometimes butterflies are abundant. We see turtles and the rare Delmarva fox squirrel.

Chincoteague is a “real place”, a municipality in Accomack County, Virginia. The population peaked at 4317 in 2000 and dropped to 2941 in 2010. The US Census thinks it dropped a little more as of 2018. Many residents leave in winter. Oddly, the name Chincoteague wasn’t attached to the community until 1943 (Wikipedia).

Chincoteague has numerous assets – the federal Wildlife Refuge, a small fishing fleet, extensive ecotourism, and the famous (and controversial) wild ponies. Yes, a place to value and, perhaps, preserve. But it’s isolated, with a single long causeway. And it is excruciatingly LOW. It has no “high ground”. Wikipedia lists its elevation at 3 feet. Yes, just one meter.

Chincoteague already rebuilt once, after the 1962 northeaster called the Ash Wednesday Storm by which it was completely submerged. I believe that every house from before 1962 was elevated by several courses of cinderblock. A smaller community on Assateague Island, to the east, was abandoned, with a few houses being floated across to Chincoteague on barges.

I’ve studied Chincoteague carefully on my many bike rides up and down the narrow island. Most interesting to me is the fact the very highest land in Chincoteague is occupied, not by housing, but by graveyards. Old graveyards, perched on the long sand dunes that run north/south along the island.

In Chincoteague, plans for the future are being laid. Most conspicuous (and occasionally contentious) are plans for the federal land. The Refuge visitor center has been rebuilt. The bridge on the main access road to the island has been rebuilt, much higher. My last visit was in 2017. I was impressed by a new farmers market and a cultural society. The City has a Mayor and a website. Chincoteague may struggle, but I think it’s here to stay. Keeping my fingers crossed!

My point? It won’t be possible to save every house and every community as the sea level rises. We need to think and talk about future decisions NOW, and the conversational net should be cast as widely as possible.

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“The Path Between the Seas – The Creation of the Panama Canal 1879-1914” by David McCullough

I spent weeks reading this book (with a few fiction side trips) and it was well worth it. It took me a while to realize McCullough was the author of the wonderful book on the Brooklyn Bridge I read fifteen years ago. That was way before anyone talked about “creative non-fiction”, a genre I’m not clear about. Seems to mean non-fiction that is not serious enough for an academic journal. I read LOTS of it.

McCullough is at the head of the class in creative non-fiction. His mixes history, science and technology with wonderful clarity. In his book on the Brooklyn Bridge, he explained “the bends”, an illness that previously had me baffled. He included plenty of medical science in Path Between the Seas. 

I’ve put the Panama Canal on my bucket list. My father took our family to see the newly opened Saint Lawrence Seaway when I was nine. Fascination with “big engineering” is in my blood.

Takeaway messages:

  • Sometimes people and governments can get together on a big project that isn’t a war. Easy to forget in these troubled days. (I am talking about ISIS and Ebola.)
  • Even when people work together on something positive, bad things happen along the way. Racism and exploitation of labor were “business as usual” during the construction of the Canal.
  • You don’t always have to know where you are going in order to get there.
  • Yes, you get unexpected benefits from forcing technology.

McCullough is especially interesting when he writes about scientific facts that are known but not applied. Most of the “science” necessary to prevent “the bends” was available at the time the Brooklyn Bridge was built, but it wasn’t applied to what was then called “caisson sickness” and people suffered and died unnecessarily. Applying knowledge of mosquito biology, etc., to control malaria wasn’t easily accomplished.

Most interesting oddball fact? McCullough says that banks of the Culebra Cut, where the Canal passed through the highest mountain peak, had not found their “angle of repose” when he wrote the book in 1978. In other words, that part of the Canal still suffered from landslides! I wonder what has happened since.

Now that we are facing accelerated sea level rise (due to global warming), what engineering projects will we decide to undertake? In the developed world, we can pick and choose. The city of Boston (I learned at a recent conference) intends to sit right there in the path of disaster, hardening their infrastructure and maybe imposing minor zoning changes. They’ve got lots of engineering expertise (MIT? Harvard?) and lots of money. I expect Boston to survive, but what surprises may happen along the way?

What will happen to my other favorite sea level town, tiny Chincoteague, Virginia? They already withdrew once – some of the houses there were moved from Assateague Island, which was de-developed/depopulated after a major storm in the 1940s. What will it take to save Chincoteague? Stay tuned. I plan to visit there shortly.

What will happen in the developing world? What will be saved? We are already hearing of “climate refugees”. Some of them will not be able to return to their now unsafe flood ravaged communities. I read that India is reinforcing its border with Bangladesh to keep out illegal immigrants. For now, I’m categorizing this as a nasty rumor…

I ramble…

Who else writes creative non-fiction really well? Jon Krakauer comes to mind.

I recommend Path Between the Seas.

“A Year By the Sea” by Joan Anderson

I downloaded this book because I hoped it might be a feminist, contemporary version of The Outermost House by Henry Beston, which is also set on Cape Cod. Wrong! Nature appears in this book only as a backdrop to the personal growth of the author. A Year By the Sea is subtitled Thoughts of an Unfinished Woman. Well, I am an unfinished woman, too, and I’ve got my own thoughts to keep me busy.

I’m thinking about whether I should take a vacation on Cape Cod. I fear it has been developed beyond bearing, like Ocean City, Maryland and Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. So I guess, when I get a chance, I’ll head for Chincoteague, Virginia, and try to enjoy it before sea level rise obliterates it. If I’m going to have a life crisis like Joan Anderson and need to run off for a season or a year, I better do it soon, before Chincoteague disappears.