The roots of the people who make up the predominantly Black town of Piney Grove in Brunswick County run deep. Most live in houses that have been passed from one generation to the next, on land that has been in the family for more than a century and on streets named for the families who first called it home.
Brunswick County is sandwiched between New Hanover County and the South Carolina border. A 2020 report found that it experienced 10 hurricane-based Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) emergencies between 2010 and 2019. Whether it was the storms that became internationally famous like Florence or Matthew or the ones that barely made headlines like Dorian, Elsa and Sam, all of them put the community underwater and forced many to leave. Each time, fewer and fewer returned.
As the storms and coastal flooding become more frequent, many people who live low-lying, low wealth coastal communities like Piney Grove will have to decide whether to stay or go.
Black neighborhoods created by historic discriminatory “redlining” housing policies in both urban and rural coastal areas are being disproportionately impacted by climate change. Southern coastal communities like Piney Grove are at highest risk because of sea-level rise. Urban neighborhoods usually have lower than average vegetation cover and are at greater risk of extreme heat.
While residents acknowledge the huge role climate change plays, they also believe unchecked development in the area is a big part of the problem. Brunswick County is mostly rural and lacks the infrastructure to accommodate the spate of new building. It’s also doing little to catch up.
Stormwater used to drain into the nearby swamp, and then meet the Lockwoods Folly River en route to the ocean. But that’s no longer possible when the drainage ditches remain clogged with vegetation and construction debris from one year to the next. Roads and streets flood even after routine rain. Residents have been sounding the alarm for years but, as is often the case with poor communities of color, their concerns are overlooked.
Last summer, developers H W Design submitted an application to the Brunswick County Planning Board company for the kind of project that is prone to flooding in an area prone to flooding. The 260 acre Middle Creek Village located between Highway 17 and Old Ocean Highway would consist of 470 single-family lots, 120 duplexes and 153 townhomes.
The Board voted 6-1 to deny the project because it was only designed to accommodate a 25-year storm event. When developers resubmitted the application the next month, the revised plan included contingencies for a 100-year storm event. Middle Creek Village was approved, with the provision that the developer agree to clear debris that clogs ditches and cause flooding.
Few people believe this minor modification will address the problem. As long as the county continues to evaluate each project individually without taking the cumulative impact of the development into account, the flooding will only get worse.