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A French beach cleared of homes shows NC the way

Erosion left some beach homes in Nags Head, seen in this 2011 photo, perilously close to the Atlantic Ocean. A national advocacy group gives North Carolina a “D” grade for its protection of the coast and beaches.
Erosion left some beach homes in Nags Head, seen in this 2011 photo, perilously close to the Atlantic Ocean. A national advocacy group gives North Carolina a “D” grade for its protection of the coast and beaches. JOHN D. SIMMONS - jsimmons@charl

Surprising to me, the French are ahead of the United States, and particularly ahead of North Carolina’s policies on preparation for the rising sea’s impact.

In the early morning hours of Feb. 28, 2010 a massive storm named Xynthia, the largest in memory for most of the local people, struck the coast of France. Fifty seven people died, some drowning in their beds and others being trapped in their houses. Having learned a critical lesson, the French started a program, perhaps the first in the world, focused on relocation of buildings back from the shorefront. The French minister of the environment set the stage saying, “We need to act now to save the coastline of tomorrow.”

In close consultation with the communities involved, the new French program has identified communities at high risk, and recommended actions to be taken. Actions include moving buildings back, demolition of buildings at risk, prohibition of construction of new buildings, and in some cases even prohibiting modifications to existing buildings. After Xynthia, at least 30 already-granted beachfront construction permits were revoked.

The problems of the French coast are much like the problems of the Carolinas. Since 1999 more than 100,000 buildings have been built on the French coast in flood prone areas. The French president at the time of the big storm, Nicolas Sarkhoz, said, “We cannot be lenient with safety. Before this very catastrophe, were not all the cards already on the table?”

A look at images on Google Earth tells an amazing story about one of the successes of their new retreat program. The 2010 image shows at least 50 houses bordering Aytré Beach, a tourist community south of La Rochelle. The 2014 image shows no buildings bordering the beach. The houses. mostly brick and tile structures built on concrete foundations had all been demolished and removed. Retreat from the Aytré shoreline was total.

But in North Carolina we continue to trudge down the path to a dismal future with an absolute certainty of catastrophe from sea level rise and intensified hurricanes. We continue to nourish beaches, costing millions of dollars per mile which last on average somewhere around three years. Nourishment continues to encourage more beachfront development of more and larger buildings, and even has some proposing allowance of development even farther into the high-hazard zone. More and more hard, immovable shoreline engineering structures, once illegal in North Carolina, are being permitted, and ‘temporary’ sandbagging has become permanent.

As the French minister of the environment said, we need to act now. We need to altogether halt North Carolina beachfront construction, especially the now favorite three-story McMansions. We should stop constructing all hard coastal engineering structures, which ultimately damage or destroy the beaches. We must move back or demolish threatened buildings. And after future storms, we should prohibit repair or replacement of damaged buildings. Currently, damaged buildings are often replaced by larger ones. All of these events are happening right now. All regulations concerning development on our barrier islands must realistically recognize climate change, sea-level rise and the retreating shoreline.

In the interest of economic fairness, we should also require coastal homeowners to pay the actual cost of federal flood insurance, as well as requiring beachfront property owners to pay for beach nourishment. Flood insurance is heavily subsidized by taxpayers, and nourishment is dependent mostly upon federal and state funding (again taxpayers). Ironically, the taxpayer-supported flood insurance encourages beach front building which is then rescued by taxpayer-funded beach nourishment; all of which rewards those who are unwise enough to build next to a rising ocean.

(Thanks to Andrew Cooper and Claire Le Guern ( for providing the factual basis for this op ed.)

Orrin H. Pilkey is the James B. Duke Professor Emeritus Earth and Ocean Sciences at Duke University and co-author of “The Last Beach.”