Nags Head

By Nicole Cason

In North Carolina, many local governments and organizations are taking actions to make their communities more climate resilient. The Town of Nags Head worked with a local organization, North Carolina Sea Grant, to improve their resiliency in the community as it relates to sea level rise, one of the biggest climate challenges facing their community. We got a chance to speak virtually with both Kate Jones, Deputy Planning Director of the Town of Nags Head, and Frank López, Extension Director at NC Sea Grant and an affiliate of the Water Resources Research Institute, to discuss their roles in boosting North Carolina’s climate resiliency.

By Nicole Cason

Kate, a landscape architect by training with experience in both consulting and non-profit work, has been working with the Town of Nags Head for about four years, with a lot of her work centering around stormwater management, long-range planning projects, and water quality projects, among other endeavors. Her work is split between daily activities, such as building and permitting across the Town, and long-term project management that addresses the challenges raised by the community and laid out in the town’s comprehensive plan created in 2017. One of the biggest challenges facing the Nags Head community is sea level rise, as the town is situated on the Atlantic coast of North Carolina. Not only does sea level rise have obvious effects on the shoreline, but it also affects hydrology under the ground, which can cause a whole host of issues such as rising groundwater and impacting wastewater management systems.  

As Kate explains, much of the town is situated at a lower elevation, so they are seeing more standing water after a rain event with nowhere for the water to go, which can have a detrimental effect on water quality in the long term. However, Kate and the Town of Nags Head are taking many steps to prepare the community to mitigate and adapt to these issues. One initiative is an 18-month estuarine shoreline management plan, which is looking to manage the backside of the island as much of the current attention is focused on the public beaches and shorelines. In Kate’s words, the town has a “real focus on nature-based solutions,” which can include habitat improvement, dune infiltration systems, and attempting to slow down erosion in certain areas through natural processes.  

As mentioned previously, the Town of Nags Head has worked with NC Sea Grant, where Frank López works as an Extension Director to connect coastal communities to the organization and aid in climate resiliency efforts. Frank is originally from Texas, but has spent the majority of his career working in coastal management and planning in the Carolinas and Great Lakes regions. He went on to graduate school at UNC Chapel Hill and earned his master’s degree in regional planning, then worked for 15 and a half years at the National Estuarine Research Reserve in Ohio, a NOAA affiliated program. In 2018, he began working as Extension Director at NC Sea Grant, an interorganizational program in the UNC system headquartered at NC State. 

The main goal of Sea Grant itself is to promote healthy environments and economies for coastal communities through research, extension, and outreach programs. His main role is to support other extension specialists, such as the climate assessment extension associate in Raleigh or the resiliency specialist in Morehead City; however, Frank does get involved more hands-on in some areas, such as hurricane recovery efforts. One initiative he worked on is with the North Carolina Office of Recovery and Resiliency (NCORR) on the Regions Innovating for Strong Economies and Environment (RISE) program, which aims to support resiliency at a statewide level with community guidebooks and other resources to prepare for a more resilient future in NC.  

Further, Sea Grant extension specialist Jane Harrison is working with the Nags Head community to help in the long-term septic system planning. Sea level rise is a tremendous problem for coastal community wastewater. Higher sea levels can mean higher water tables, which can affect the functioning of septic systems. He emphasized how coastal communities need to be prepared for more intense storm events, and while good management practices can buy us some time, ultimately sea level rise may make the costs of protecting properties extreme. This is an unfortunate truth, but inland communities must also be prepared for people migrating away from frequent storms or away from flood prone areas.  

Additionally, something important he brought up was how he and his team approach and work with communities in NC. He says, “You don't often times approach the community with an agenda. You want to be collaborative with the community, and try to hear their concerns through active listening, then trying to collaboratively consider solutions … we’ve seen some well-meaning resilience efforts go off the rails at times just because there wasn’t enough opportunity for feedback by the community as stakeholders to what the process should be.” This concept of “co-production” really stuck with me as an important value within Frank’s work, because making sure the community is at the table from the beginning of the discussion makes their values feel heard and ultimately creates a better resiliency strategy long term.