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A Disaster Or Poor Planning? North Topsail Beach Awaits FEMA Decision

North Topsail Beach
North Topsail Beach

North Topsail Beach officials are hoping the federal government will help rebuild after coastal flooding associated with Hurricane Joaquin washed away about $15 million in sand there.

FEMA officials visited the area twice in the last two weeks. They will decide if a federal disaster declaration is warranted. If granted, federal money will be used to replenish sand and rebuild dunes along the coastline.

“It would really help us,” North Topsail Beach Assistant Town Manager Carin Faulkner said at a press conference after the town released a damage assessment. “Some of our properties are very vulnerable right now.”

Damage was particularly acute in front of several dozen beachfront homes on the north end of the island, next to the New River Inlet.

That has rekindled long-running discussions of protecting expensive beachfront property at the expense of other efforts in the community.

“If they spend all of their money and all of their time trying to protect the most vulnerable homes on their oceanfront, they are neglecting the long-term planning for the rest of their community,” says Rob Young, the Director of the Center For Developed Shorelines at Western Carolina University.

Many of the buildings and homes in North Topsail Beach are built in a Coastal Barriers Resource zone, commonly called “Cobra”. The federal government mapped and designated COBR zones as ecologically or geologically sensitive areas back in the 1980s. The hope was to deter development in those areas by making structures there ineligible for federally backed flood insurance.

In recent years, Representative Walter Jones (and former Senator Kay Hagan) have proposed bills in Congress that would remove the COBR designation from the north end of North Topsail Beach. Congress has yet to put the bills to a vote.

Young says if FEMA makes a disaster declaration in this case, it will set bad policy.

“North Topsail Beach is the best example in the state of North Carolina of a community that is trying to support largely investment property in places that property shouldn’t be,” he says.

Officials in North Topsail Beach say they have received an indication that FEMA will make a decision by the end of the month. 

Dave DeWitt is WUNC's Feature News Editor. As an editor, reporter, and producer he's covered politics, environment, education, sports, and a wide range of other topics.
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