Crews here are building a 9-foot-tall wall of sandbags to save about 20 homes threatened by rapidly encroaching ocean waves, a $2.6 million race against the clock.
Engineers predict the homes – on Topsail Island’s northern tip – might otherwise collapse into the ocean within the next year. Already, normal tide cycles push waves under the buildings, and the town has cut off utilities as a precaution.
Wooden stairways hang in midair, their support beams gone. Concrete driveways have washed away. The erosion threat emerged just a year after a multimillion-dollar beach renourishment project, the fresh sand washed away after a single summer.
In November, the state’s Coastal Resources Commission held an emergency meeting to approve the sandbag wall, which is considered “supersized” because it will be 3 feet taller than the maximum allowed height. The commission is charged with enforcing environmental protections along the coast.
“It’s always been a problem area, and we needed to do something immediately to protect the property,” Mayor Dan Tuman said in a phone interview this week.
The problems on Topsail could reignite the statewide debate over building hard structures to stop shifting sands. In 2011, the legislature approved four “terminal groins” – barriers made of rock or steel that are perpendicular to shore and slow the migration of sand – but efforts to allow more haven’t succeeded. North Topsail Beach isn’t seeking a groin now but could if erosion continues.
The latest erosion isn’t the first threat for Topsail’s north end. The houses now in danger were second-row homes a decade or so ago. The 11 houses that once blocked their view were razed as the shoreline shifted.
Just to the south of the threatened homes, the Topsail Reef condominium complex already has an even taller sandbag wall to protect its eight pastel-colored buildings that date to the early 1980s.
The effort cost $2.2 million, with residents splitting the cost with federal grants and insurance money. The condominiums got the state’s blessing this fall to add more sandbags – at 12 feet tall, they’ll likely be among the highest in the state.
Beach access stairs at several Topsail Reef buildings now lead directly into the ocean at high tides. And without a beach for sunbathing and swimming, some vacation rental agencies are steering their clients elsewhere.
“That’s a big hit to a lot of the owners that are depending on that rental income,” said Jay Greenspan, the homeowners association president and a longtime resident of the complex.
Greenspan said the new sand in 2013 allowed for one “great summer,” and residents expected the beach would stay in good shape for a few years. More sand likely won’t be added until 2016 at the earliest, based on federally regulated dredging cycles.
“When you’re losing feet in a matter of months instead of years, it’s quite alarming,” Greenspan said. “It’s the accelerating pace of the erosion that’s been devastating.”
Orrin Pilkey, founder of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Western Carolina University, has for years called North Topsail one of the “most hazardous islands for development” in the United States.
He bases that claim on the barrier island’s low elevation – scarcely above sea level anywhere – narrow width and single evacuation route. Conditions are the worst at the north end, because of the presence of the New River Inlet.
“At inlets, the shoreline is very active,” Pilkey said, explaining the recent erosion. “The whole of North Topsail Beach is very, very unsafe.”
Pilkey doesn’t put much stock in the town’s efforts to protect beachfront properties. He said the sandbags will buy time for the homes, but their residents won’t be lounging on the sand. “I think we’ll end up with a seawall beach, with no recreational beach at all,” he said.
With sea levels rising, Pilkey recommends removing the houses and letting nature take its course. He worries that even a minor hurricane could cause major damage. “It would take a minute storm surge to flood the island,” he said. “When that storm comes across the tip of Florida ... get the heck out of there quickly.”
Pilkey knows his findings are unpopular; Tuman called him “mathematically challenged” in a recent letter to the local newspaper. The mayor said the town’s shoreline is perfectly stable except for the northern tip.
The N.C. Coastal Federation, an environmental group, echoes Pilkey’s warning: “The solution is to get out of developing on the tips of these coastal hazard zones,” federation staff member Mike Giles said.
‘I’ve got no choice’
Property owners in the eroded area are optimistic about the sandbag project. Jorge Giovinazzo, a Burlington contractor, said his duplex will be in good shape once the town reconnects his utilities.
“Most of the damage is on the bottom side of the house,” Giovinazzo said. “If the sandbags and dunes work, I’m not worried.”
But he’s not looking forward to paying for the project. The $2.6 million price tag is being split 50-50 between town funding reserves and the affected property owners. Giovinazzo said the contractor behind the 2013 beach renourishment project should pick up the tab. He sees the rapid erosion as a sign that a channel realignment in the inlet – part of the renourishment effort – isn’t working.
“No one is being held responsible for something that doesn’t work, but we have to pay for something else,” Giovinazzo said. He thinks the town should have opted for a taller sandbag wall.
But town officials have stood behind Coastal Planning & Engineering’s channel plan. They argued in their application for sandbags that it “could take five years before the new channel began to have a positive impact on the shoreline with full recovery of the shoreline possibly taking up to 15 years.”
Giovinazzo said he sees little alternative to paying his share and hoping the power is back on in time for vacation rental season.
“I’ve got no choice until they condemn the whole thing and we get the insurance money,” Giovinazzo said.
A Coastal Resources Commission advisory panel of geologists and coastal engineers predicted this week that the seas will rise several inches on this part of the coast over the next 30 years. The forecast ranges between 4.1 to 8.5 inches at Wilmington, south of Topsail, and 4.9 to 9.3 inches at Beaufort, farther north.
East Carolina University geologist Stan Riggs, part of the science panel that wrote the new forecast, is critical of the sandbag plan.
“Building bigger and bigger hardened structures to save 21 houses that should have been condemned or removed a long time ago is just crazy,” Riggs said. “We’re spending more money than those structures are worth.”
Staff writer Bruce Siceloff contributed