What’s at Stake

Of all the remarkable places in our country, the Southeastern coast is one of the most beloved and most extraordinary in terms of natural resources—and most at risk due to the accelerating impacts of climate change, sea level rise, intensifying storms, and flooding. Also at risk are our homes, businesses, and military bases. Explore how these changes are playing out in our communities, and why smart decisions are critical for our future.

Understand the Impacts

Beautiful natural places define the Southeast coast and provide important habitat for vulnerable wildlife. When we protect these special places for wildlife and our own enjoyment, we also protect some of our best defenses against climate change, storms, and flooding. Wetlands and marshes store floodwater to protect our neighborhoods and are also critical habitat for many species. Saving remaining wetlands, marshes, coastal forests, and sandy beaches will be critical for our coastal future.

Marsh migration

Coastal marshes buffer the coast, wildlife habitat, and communities from storms and flooding. However, marshes drown when water rises too high. Marshes adapt by moving into shallower water, but roads, seawalls, and coastal construction block this migration. Saving marshes and providing spaces for marsh movement will preserve their flooding protection and help coastal wildlife survive.

Wetland loss

Draining and filling wetlands for development erases valuable wildlife and landscapes. Wetlands and marshes store floodwater to protect our neighborhoods and are also critical habitat for many species. Biodiversity fades without wetlands, which provide critical habitats for both aquatic and terrestrial species

In the last 50 years, the Southeast US has lost more than 55% of its coastal wetlands.

81% of coastal wetlands in the contiguous US are in the Southeast region.

Over 75% of the US commercial fish and shellfish harvest is wetland dependent.

Sea level rise impact on wildlife

Sea level rise threatens important coastal habitat for everything from shorebirds to gamefish. Endangered species such as piping plovers and loggerhead sea turtles are losing sandy beach habitat. Red-cockaded woodpeckers are losing coastal forest habitat. Protecting remaining wetlands and marshes not only helps prevent flooding but is also critical for saving countless species.

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Stronger storms and higher tides put our coastal communities at risk, from the inconveniences of sunny day flooding to the devastating loss of lives and homes from hurricanes. Irresponsible development makes it worse, diverting floodwater into neighborhoods that never used to flood and placing new construction in vulnerable areas. But not everyone suffers the same. Too often, communities whose voices are excluded from or ignored in the planning process bear the brunt of bad decisions.

Fewer wetlands, more flooding

An acre of wetlands holds 330,000 gallons of water, so when developers destroy wetlands, neighborhoods lose flood protection and homes are more likely to be damaged. In the flood-prone Church Creek watershed outside Charleston, developers filled nearly a quarter of the wetlands in a 15-year building boom ending in 2010. They are still building in the watershed today.

Disaster relief and response is inequitable

Generations of race-based zoning and government indifference have caused many communities to suffer as governments have distributed disaster aid unevenly and unfairly. In some communities, neighbors can’t afford to move or can’t use relocation funding, leaving them trapped in a cycle of flooding, repairs, and more flooding.

“A growing body of research shows that FEMA, the government agency responsible for helping Americans recover from disasters, often helps white disaster victims more than people of color, even when the amount of damage is the same.”

–The New York Times

More water. More often.

Sea level is rising faster than many floodplain maps are updated. Communities just outside floodplains are in more danger than they realize, and may be lulled into a false sense of security. That risk, coupled with increasingly severe summer storms, is exposing more homes to flooding and costly damage.

New construction, roads, and infrastructure in flood-prone areas put people at risk and waste public funds, trapping us in a costly cycle of flooding, repair, and more flooding. Smarter development solutions and commonsense decisions will make the difference in protecting coastal communities and places.

Seawalls aren’t the solution

Because of rising seas and persistent erosion, the ocean is creeping closer to beachfront homes. A common reaction is to protect property with seawalls and rock structures, known as groins. But that kind of beach armoring unfairly prevents sand from reaching neighboring properties. Coastal management must prioritize smart and equitable adaptation.

A “groin” is a low rock structure that extends into the ocean, like a jetty. It is designed to trap sand to make a bigger beach on one side of the structure. But on the other side, it leads to scouring erosion that often devastates the beach.

The beach at Sea Island, Georgia, was wide and inviting in the late 1980s. But after a series of groins were built, the sand nearly vanished from the groins’ south sides. Groins are often built to benefit wealthy oceanfront homeowners at the expense of nearby properties and the coastal environment.

Nature-based solutions

Using or enhancing natural features to control flooding is better for the coastal environment than a reliance on concrete. Tidal marshes, oyster reefs, and floodplains protect communities and resist erosion, while seawalls, jetties, and groins can accelerate erosion.

For a long time, coastal cities tried to hold back storm surge and rising tides with seawalls and sandbags. But that kind of shoreline armoring has accelerated erosion and damaged the coast. Now many coastal areas are looking for more natural ways to protect homes, businesses, and infrastructure. In some cases, nature-based solutions can be big and bold, like creating oyster reefs as offshore breakwaters and building earthen levees that seamlessly blend with the beauty of a city’s waterfront.

But nature-based solutions also can be highly effective on a small scale. Street flooding in a coastal neighborhood can be greatly reduced with clever solutions like adding permeable paving, creating roadside rain gardens and swales, and maintaining natural areas that absorb water.

Homes in danger of flooding

Building in flood-prone areas is a bad idea, but it is often homebuyers left to bear that risk, not the developers who move on to other projects. Flood-damage claims have put the National Flood Insurance Program $20 billion in debt. Better planning and zoning can protect floodplains from development and keep these problems from getting worse.

100,000+ homes at risk of yearly flooding by 2050.

$40-50 Billion of property at risk of yearly flooding by 2050.

Flood zones are expanding and yet we continue building there.

Sources

802,555 Homes at Risk of 10-Year Flood Inundation by 2050, July 2019. Estimates in pull quotes refer to the region represented in the Coastal Resilience tool.


Coastal Decisions at a Crossroads

Nimmo Parkway, VA

This planned highway would cut across the Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge, one of the most iconic remaining natural areas in Virginia Beach. This project would encourage building in places prone to flooding, and it could alter natural water flow, increasing the flood risk to nearby homes during heavy storms.

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Mid-Currituck Bridge, NC

This $500 million bridge planned for the Currituck Sound was designed without considering how coastal changes will affect it, or how the bridge will change the coast. The roads leading to the bridge will be underwater if the surf keeps rising as projected, rendering the seven-mile bridge useless. And the bridge itself will prevent coastal marshes from adapting and moving, killing off a critical and natural buffer.

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Protecting the Public Trust in Nags Head, NC

As climate change fuels rising seas and erodes shorelines, North Carolina’s longstanding coastal protection approach is being put to the test. In one notable case, out-of-state vacation homeowners sued the state when “set-back regulations” for their eroding barrier island lot prevented them from rebuilding their home too close to the water after it was destroyed in a fire. While the homeowners claimed the state had “taken” their property, it was the rising sea that made their lot unbuildable, a case underscoring the importance of states being able to effectively respond to sea level rise.

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Cainhoy, SC

This nearly 9,400-acre planned development will destroy the kinds of wetlands that Charleston desperately needs for flooding protection. According to the developer’s plan, over half of the houses would be built in a floodplain, trapping homebuyers in a costly cycle of flooding and repairs. New roads will prevent coastal marshes from adapting and migrating, which kills them and robs the region of another valuable flood protector. The endangered red-cockaded woodpecker makes its home on this land, and the site provides an important habitat corridor for wildlife in the Francis Marion National Forest.

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Highway 41 and Phillips Community, SC

Officials in Charleston County, South Carolina have proposed widening a road through the Phillips Community, a historic Black neighborhood, to ease traffic in another community, suburban Mount Pleasant. Already, nearby development has increased flooding by turning rural lands into housing and roads, and the road widening would increase flooding and traffic in the Phillips Community. The county has reversed course, but some opposition to the revised plan remains. There are alternatives to solve traffic without deepening the road’s scar through the community that could improve safety for the entire corridor.

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Charleston Seawall, SC

The Army Corps of Engineers is proposing an eight-mile seawall encircling much of the peninsula to combat storm surge. But Charleston faces other flooding threats the wall won’t address, like flooding from storms and high tides. A better solution for Charleston would be to rethink how the city lives with water, and to design more natural, less damaging buffers to protect the historic city.

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Mark Clark Expressway, SC

The proposed Mark Clark Expressway Extension is expected to cost at least $772 million with little evidence it will fix traffic problems. The unnecessary eight-mile extension would cross the Stono River twice, destroy valuable wetlands, and open up rural Johns Island to sprawling and risky development. Significant portions of the extended road would be underwater or surrounded by water with 2 feet of sea level rise.

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Long Savannah, SC

In a flood-prone area in the City of Charleston, a developer proposed to fill over 200 acres of wetlands and build up to 4,500 homes. We started working to steer this project in a less damaging direction in 2018, and in summer 2021 we were able to reach a settlement that protects an additional 50 acres of wetlands on the property while achieving extra flood protections for residents of the watershed.

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Camden Spaceport, GA

Plans to build a spaceport along a sensitive stretch of the Georgia coast would risk ecological damage from toxic fuel and debris—with rockets launching over homes, historic places, and popular recreational destinations—and would unwisely locate infrastructure in an area often subjected to storm surge and flooding.

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Plant Barry, AL

Alabama Power is storing more than 20 million tons of coal ash – loaded with mercury, arsenic, and lead – in a huge unlined pit on the banks of the Mobile River. Unless the utility excavates the toxic ash as other Southern utilities have done, more powerful hurricanes and increased flooding could cause a catastrophic spill into the Mobile River, Tensaw Delta and Mobile Bay.

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Wolf Bay Bridge, AL

This proposed bridge over Wolf Bay in Alabama would encourage development in a sparsely populated area already prone to flooding. Not only would development harm the rural environment and its wildlife, it would put houses and people in an area where the threat of flooding is increasing every year as water levels rise. Like other similar projects, it was planned without considering the trends of sea level rise, and the roads leading to the bridge could in the near future be flooded in even moderate storms.

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