Catastrophic coastal flooding

As ocean water warms and ice sheets around the world melt, climate change has caused ocean levels to rise. And almost everyone in the North Carolina coastal town of Swan Quarter can feel the effects. This segment is part of Peril and Promise, our ongoing series of reports on the human impact of, and solutions for, climate change. Lead funding is provided by P. Roy Vagelos and Diana T. Vagelos. Major support is provided by The Marc Haas Foundation and Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III.


As ocean water warms and ice sheets around the world melt, climate change has caused ocean levels to rise, and almost everyone in the North Carolina coastal town of Swan Quarter can feel the effects.

However, the impact will be much greater if not for a decades-old piece of unique infrastructure.

This segment is part of an ongoing public media reporting initiative called 'Peril & Promise,' telling the human stories and solutions of climate change.

Well, my brother and I have taken it over.

It gives us a lot of freedom.

You get to work with a lot of good people.

You don't do the same thing every day.

You're outside.

It's just a nice, nice business.

Newman Seafood sits on a spit of land jutting into Pamlico Sound.

It's just outside Swan Quarter.

You have a lot of years where it's make or break.

If you cover your expenses, you feel really good about it, and you have a year where you come ahead some.

The family-owned firm has weathered the winds and water for almost 40 years.

It's more of a challenge these days because the area sees minor flooding several times per month, even without storms in the area.

It's worse during hurricane season.

We deal with small shrimp boats.

We deal with crab boats, fish boats.

Wind really dictates when they can work and when they can't, where they can work, where they can't.

We also -- Our road -- You can see over around that boat ramp some, the tide starting to come in.

Our road floods when we have really strong northwest winds.

That makes it hard for us to work where we're at.

The docks are outside of the almost 18-mile dike that protects the town and the valuable farmland around it.

I do think the dike has really helped the town.

I think it's probably helped our farmers a lot.

It keeps the salt water from intruding on their land.

I'm lucky where my business is.

We're on a high hill.

I flood this side of me, and I flood on the other side of me.

We're getting ready to come up on the dike right here.

He doesn't need to load back the beans.

He just needs to plan on doing that first thing tomorrow.

My name is J.W. Spencer, live in Hyde County, farmed basically all my life.

Chairman of the Hyde County Soil and Water Board.

About three quarters of what we farm is protected by the dike.

Probably half of that three quarters wouldn't be able to be cultivated now.

It would be totally ruined.

Be pine trees.

It wouldn't be feasible to cultivate it.

Construction of the dike system started 30 years ago.

It was first built to stop storm-driven waves from flooding farmland.

That's called saltwater intrusion.

Salt water renders farmland unproductive for decades. so bad.

It's just sterile.

About 20,000 acres, that's roughly 1/5 of Hyde County's farmland, was ruined by saltwater intrusion before the dike was built.

The dike is a packed earthen berm protecting farmland for most of its length.

It tops out at six feet above sea level.

It's difficult to see from the ground, but from the air, it's clear what the dike system protects.

J.W.'s farm is on the left.

The dike, with the dirt road on top, runs parallel to the drainage canal.

Trees that can survive a mix of fresh and salt water grow near the dike and canal, but the trees then give way to salt marsh all the way to Pamlico Sound.

That floodgate is on hinges on the top.

There are seven floodgates like this along the system.

The gates sit at the end of canals that drain storm water from farm fields.

And when you get a rain, it opens that gate up 'cause the pressure gets higher on the inside.

Pressure open the gate up, lets the water flow out.

When it gets even, those gates shut, and then when the tide comes up, they stay shut and don't let the salt water flow in.

Throughout the town of Swan Quarter, the dike is a steel-and-concrete wall.

There's a reminder at Pat's Service Station of how high floodwaters reached before the dike.

Dennis was '99.

Two weeks later, we had Floyd.

And that was in '99.

And then in 2003, we had Isabel.

The dike has worked.

It saved me four or five times.

It's absolutely key to protecting the tax base and the agricultural land and personal property value here at Swan Quarter.

But now residents living and working on both sides of the dike say the system is holding back more than just storm surge.

Minor flooding is common.

You got sea level rise.

Low tides are higher than they used to be.

High tides are higher than they used to be, and normal is high.

I'd say 3 to 4 inches higher.

Normal is 3 to 4 inches higher than it was 15 years ago.

Sea level rise is a real concern because most of Hyde County lies in the 100-year floodplain.

It's just 3 feet above sea level.

A report from the Union of Concerned Scientists shows the potential ranges of sea level rise, and, at higher levels, the dike system would be overwhelmed.

But as the sea level rises, that 'nuisance' is going to occur 100, 150, 200 times a year.

In the near term, just 15 years from now in 2030, many of the coastal towns are going to be seeing upwards of 100 tidal floodings a year, and that's just with the tide.

You don't need a storm.

According to the experts, 100 years from now, Hyde County's gonna be underwater.

And I -- Ain't no way.

That's not gonna happen.

I don't know.

If we don't do some things like this dike project, we can protect it.

Moving forward, there will need to be plans to update and augment the function of the dike here.

We're water-dependent.

The boats have to be able to pull up to my dock to unload, and if they can't do that, we just can't -- I can't load it from here onto a truck to take it in town to work with it.