A good neighbor rising: How to live with the ocean next door

The ocean has been creeping closer for a long time, reaching higher onto our beaches, spilling onto our docks and roads, and lapping at our way of life. It has been a beloved neighbor, but it is not a welcome guest.

And most climate scientists say the ocean is not going to stop knocking on our doors.

“We have the data and we can’t ignore it,” said Kate Schaefer, Coastal Conservation League’s south coast director.

The data speaks to the slowly rising sea level due to climate change, and with it the increasing frequency of “nuisance flooding,” or “sunny day flooding.” According to Climate Central’s “Surging Seas” risk assessment, moderate sea level rise predictions locally are 1.2 feet by 2050 and 4 feet by 2100.

The same assessment has “extreme floods” going from a rarity to “fairly common” in the next 30 years in a moderate sea level rise scenario; even low-range projections include a 50 percent chance of extreme floods exceeding 4 feet above the high tide line within the next 50 years.

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How does that affect the Lowcountry? More than one in four homes on Hilton Head Island is less than 4 feet above sea level.

With $4 billion in property on Hilton Head situated less than 9 feet above sea level, rising seas are an issue that has massive implications for the community’s infrastructure, economy, natural resources and overall future. So what can be and is being done about it?

“I don’t think there’s a ‘one size fits all’ in terms of some kind of solution,” said Josh Eagle, the Solomon Blatt professor of law at the University of South Carolina's School of Law and an authority on coastal law. “There are no easy answers.”

The good news, if there is any, is that this is not a new issue. The state established the Beachfront Management Act decades ago, outlining a 40-year policy of retreat — encouraging investment farther inland and banning new sea wall construction, Eagle says.

On Hilton Head, a combination of retreat and beach renourishment has mitigated the island’s potential losses of property and profitability as a tourist destination and desirable place to live.

“Hilton Head’s Beachfront Management Plan is strong — it recommends retreat.  The fact that the Hilton Head Comprehensive Plan recommends retreat is a great first step in recognizing we can’t continue to move closer to the ocean,” Schaefer says. “We have to think about moving resources away from the front lines, as the front lines move.”

Beaufort County’s Sea Level Rise Plan was adopted in 2015. It was the result of a need identified in the 2010 Beaufort County Comprehensive Plan “to investigate opportunities for the county to adapt, or increase its capacity to adapt, to future sea level rise impacts,” according to the Sea Level Rise Adaptation Report.

Shawn Colin, the Town of Hilton Head Island’s deputy director of community development, said implementing long-range policy makes the most sense.

“Fifty years from now, development is going to look different than it looks today. So I think there’s an evolution in policy and requirements that keep you in line with maintaining some sort of stability,” Colin said. “I think incremental change over time in policy and codes and requirements help the evolution and will maintain some stability in the long run.”

Carrying out those policies — and the public’s interest in them — can shift when new facts and figures are presented, as expected any day now with the latest flood maps from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which hasn’t updated its Beaufort County maps since the early 1990s.

Colin said the Town of Hilton Head is in possession of the new maps but they likely won’t be presented to the public until this fall. He said with technological changes made in the years since the old maps were drawn, the new maps are “significantly different than the changes we’ve had from previous versions.” The maps will be used to adjust flood insurance rates that property owners with federally backed mortgages in flood-prone areas must carry. 

Also, the state Department of Health and Environmental Control’s Ocean and Coastal Resource Management plan evaluates and re-draws the baseline and setback line for South Carolina’s beaches every eight to 10 years, and it’s been a decade since that was done, Colin said.

“It’s coming up here this year or next year,” he said of the new baseline, which could shift the properties and structures affected by the town’s retreat policy.

In addition to formal policies, those in real estate and development are working on finding ways to adapt their industries to the growing threat and increased risks.

“Climate change and rising sea levels were recognized as an industry threat in a recent report done by the Counselors of Real Estate,” said Jean Beck, executive vice president of the Hilton Head Area Association of Realtors. “In an article last fall by Realtor Magazine, it addressed the concern of rising sea levels and how developers and builders are looking at new and creative ways to make structures stronger to withstand flooding or retain storm water.”

That, too, is a step in the right direction, as it’s going to take all facets of our community working together to safeguard our communities and our way of life, Schaefer said.

“I think the big takeaway is that as coastal communities, we’re vulnerable to sea level rise,” she said, “but there are ways we can protect ourselves now and in the future by recognizing where the vulnerable places are, retreating where we can, and concentrating our resources on higher ground.”