Monday, April 22, 2024

New flooding research shows most vulnerable areas in Cape Fear

Community feedback needed on green solutions

UNCW flooding research shows the underserved populations of New Hanover County, and therefore, the most vulnerable to flooding effects. (UNCW/Narcisa Pricope)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Recent research from UNCW could equip local municipalities and residents — especially those in underserved communities — with green solutions to weather flooding effects.

READ MORE: CB’s Canal Drive flooded 12% in last year, preliminary data shows

The project, titled “Green infrastructure solutions to support flood mitigation and adaptation in coastal low-lying disadvantaged communities,” compiles NASA satellite data and local geographic mapping to chart local flood projections. It also identifies which Cape Fear communities will face the heaviest impact. 

Those most vulnerable include Wilmington’s Northside and Southside, along areas around New Hanover County’s Castle Hayne, Pender County’s Rocky Point and Brunswick County’s Navassa. 

The research team is now seeking feedback from residents in affected regions through community meetings alongside its partners — New Hanover County, the City of Wilmington, and the Wilmington Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization. The team has identified various types of green infrastructure options for each community but wants residents to choose ones they’d like to see implemented.

“There are a lot of resources out there and there’s a lot of willingness even from the perspective of the county and city — they want to do things differently,” UNCW professor and researcher Narcisa Pricope said. “But they also need the taxpayer base and their support; they need people to say we want this.” 

Pricope joined the project with professor Joanne Halls and interim dean for community engagement for the College of Health and Human Services Leah Mayo, along with graduate researcher Elijah Dalton and Wake Forest University racial consultant, Crystal Dixon.  

The group used several factors to determine the most vulnerable areas, including income, race, education level, access to transportation, and most consequential according to Pricope, households with single-earners. The areas prioritized have greater populations of people with lower socioeconomic statuses and access to resources, such as transportation and resilient housing. These areas also have higher concentrations of young people, the elderly, or people with limited English proficiency.

From there, researchers also mapped where green infrastructure could be implemented; where vulnerable communities and viable areas overlap show local leaders where they can prioritize funding. 

“There’s a lot of money floating around that needs to be funneled into these kinds of approaches, but without having a clear understanding of where do we put these, what’s an area that’s suitable — that’s what we’re doing here,” Pricope said. 

UNCW flooding research shows potential areas suitable for green infrastructure to combat flooding in the Cape Fear region. (UNCW/Pricope)

The researcher noted the national push toward greener techniques, citing President Joe Biden’s $1.2 million Bipartisan Infrastructure Plan. The legislation allocates $50 billion for climate resiliency projects and $110 billion to repair roads and bridges and support major, transformational projects.

By highlighting areas that need the most attention and where municipalities can pull money from to accomplish their goals, the project enables communities to advocate for themselves. 

“They can go to the government and say, ‘Hey, we’ve done the work. We know. We’re here. We have talked to the people they are supportive — now give us $2 million,’” Pricope said. 

But the project’s data isn’t only for municipalities; it also empowers homeowners to use green techniques on their properties with financial assistance from their local governments.

Some of these strategies include disconnected downspouts to redirect excess drain water into the ground rather than on the street, or rain gardens and rain barrels to collect water for landscaping. Plus, once installation is complete, the results are pretty immediate. 

Pricope said there are some available grants, many which offer a 75% match, but residents can also write in their work effort for the other 25%, leaving residents with little out of pocket costs. 

A good portion of the researchers’ community sessions will be dedicated to educating the community on ways they can take action on their own properties, but the researchers are also going to show large-scale options residents can advocate for their representatives to invest in. Restoring wetlands, placing land under conservation, planting more trees and vegetation adept at soaking up water, using permeable pavement, green roofs, and bioswales (landscaping to collect and filter polluted water) are examples. 

“We don’t want to be putting more money into concrete and bridges and groins and these hard structures — we call them ‘gray infrastructure’ — because we have enough knowledge that they are not doing the job that we need them to do,” Pricope said. 

Gray infrastructure, such as pipes and concrete channels, allows stormwater to travel faster, potentially creating erosion issues. When at capacity, flooding occurs, which translates to a need for consistent intensive upgrades. With gray infrastructure systems, pollutants — sediment, oil, pesticides — are carried to rivers and lakes where they can create water quality issues. 

Hard infrastructure also tends to be more expensive to build and maintain than green solutions. Things like rain barrels and gardens can be simple installations. Sometimes green projects can cost more upfront, though they are expected to reduce costs in the long run.

“We can’t necessarily quantify, like, if you put in a wetland here, in 10 years it’s going to [reduce costs] because there’s so much, there’s so many factors,” Pricope said. “What we can quantify is the cost of doing nothing — and it’s billions of dollars.”

UNCW flooding research shows the flood depth of the Cape Fear region after Hurricane Florence. (UNCW/Narcisa Pricope)

The costs will be exacerbated by climate change — an increase in the frequency and intensity of storms, more sunny day flooding, and sea level rise. According to data from NOAA, sea levels are expected to rise 10 to 18 inches by 2050 and 17 to 79 inches in the next hundred years.

Pricope has also studied the financial impact of sea level rising to 5 feet by 2070 in a separate study. The research found New Hanover County property value losses would reach $4.9 million; the residential tax base would generate a $22.4 million loss, while non-residential losses would total $164,000. The number of displaced residents would reach more than 7,000 by 2070.

With these predictions in mind, it could be more imperative to incorporate sustainable practices into new construction and retrofitted properties. This makes developers integral stakeholders in the project’s implementation as well. 

Pricope described population growth in the Cape Fear region as “insane,” increasing the need for more sustainable infrastructure to protect the surging numbers from the determinants of the rising tides. She also acknowledged the green solutions proposed in the project can be at odds with development practices — but they can coexist. 

“What we need to do, especially in downtown and in areas that are growing and that are being retrofitted, is to weave some of these [green strategies] into the way that we’ve always done business,” Pricope said. “Maybe developers are not as open to hearing about these, not because there is some malice there, but I think it’s because they don’t have the know-how and the experience of working with these.” 

She’s hoping the project will show developers, municipalities and, most importantly, the public that there is more than one way to build infrastructure. Pricope noted some examples local governments have already championed — additional wetlands in Archie Blue Park, bioswales alongside 17th and Market streets, tree planting in Wallace Park, and installing permeable pavement in Riverfront Park. 

With the researchers’ data, officials will have more information to target projects in the areas most affected. 

Port City Daily reached out to New Hanover County and City of Wilmington staff on how they plan to incorporate the project’s data and recommendations into future plans. Neither responded by press. 

The project leaders are hosting a community meeting on Aug. 15, 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., at Hillcrest Community Center, 1402 Meares St. The second meeting, on Aug. 16, will be held from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at Dreams of Wilmington, 901 Fanning St. 

County and city representatives will be present offering hurricane preparedness kits. Registration is encouraged.

[Editor’s Note: Leah Mayo’s title in a previous version of this article was stated as professor, but has now been updated to interim dean for community engagement for the College of Health and Human Services. PCD regrets the error.]

Reach journalist Brenna Flanagan at

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