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Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines to assist town in protecting critical infrastructure

The town of Duck, seen in this aerial photo, has a broad beachfront and a maritime forest. (Top and bottom photos courtesy of the town of Duck)

Western Carolina University’s Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines will conduct a vulnerability assessment of a North Carolina coastal community touted as a premier beach vacation spot near important ecosystems and estuaries.

Duck, a largely seasonal resort town along N.C. 12 on the Outer Banks, is tightly bordered by the Atlantic Ocean on the east and Currituck Sound on the west. The municipality has a population of nearly 400 people, but accommodates thousands of visitors from Memorial Day to Labor Day each year.

Funding for the eight-month study is from the town, thanks to a $20,000 grant to Duck by the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality’s Division of Coastal Management. The study will examine potential hazards and the effects of storm surge, coastal erosion, flooding and sea level rise inundation on structures and transportation systems. The WCU program will evaluate levels of exposure, sensitivity and adaptive capacity for hazards, with data to be utilized for planning, targeted protection of natural features, mitigation and identifying adaptation options for buildings, structures and roads.

“This is a pilot project for us,” said Rob Young, director of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines and WCU professor of coastal geology. “We have developed a tool for the National Park Service to assess infrastructure vulnerability in all coastal parks. The tool is unique because we examine hazard exposure and sensitivity at a building-by-building, road-by-road, scale. Facilities managers need to know more than just where the flooding might occur, they need to know how their assets will perform in that flood. For example, a building that is adequately elevated will withstand flooding better than one constructed on a concrete slab.”

Rob Young

Rob Young

Town officials have said they would like to see a report that identifies vulnerable public assets, with information that can be tailored to identify all vulnerable private assets and infrastructure in the future. Reasonable adaptation options in the assessment report could be used to help town staff identify when an event ― whether expected torrential rains and seasonal hurricane or something less expected ― has surpassed current policy and the need to move to the next feasible adaptations.

Young said a unique aspect of the WCU assessment is that it will provide a list of adaptation options the town may consider for mitigating future hazards by reducing either the exposure or the sensitivity of critical infrastructure.

“We want to give them a menu of options, look at costs, viability, the specific needs the community has,” he said.

For a municipality, practical applications of the study are important for a variety of reasons, perhaps none more critical than public safety. The project will determine which mission-critical infrastructure can be maintained before, during and after various hazards occur.

“Duck will be updating its land-use plan soon, and vulnerability data is a key component in areas such as floodplain management, storm preparation, disaster planning and recovery,” said Town Manager Chris Layton. “Information that helps identify needed improvements and accurately allocate assets towards capital improvement and resource protection is vital to community resiliency. Often, the town seeks grant funding to assist with these types of improvements, and welcomes the supporting data this asset-level vulnerability assessment could provide. Completion of the report will provide town staff members with another tool to enhance policy decisions and to coordinate with homeowners’ associations, other private road and property owners, and applicable agencies to discuss vulnerabilities.

Duck is known for its town park, boardwalk along the Currituck Sound and easy access for canoes, kayaks, and paddle boards.

“Adaptation has been the approach in the Town of Duck, and that is expected to continue,” Layton said. “An analysis of the available practical options could be used during events to determine if the current plan is sufficient or if we should select the next adaptive option.”

WCU’s Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines is an internationally known research initiative working to find economically viable and environmentally sound solutions to coastal problems. A self-sustaining program, its faculty and students have worked with numerous entities, including the National Park Service, in a multi-year, ongoing collaboration. Over the years, faculty and students in the program have examined the natural hazard vulnerability of infrastructure at numerous national parks along U.S. coastlines, and recently began a study at Yellowstone National Park, their first at an inland park.

“It’s great to be able to work with the renowned WCU Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines,” said Christian Legner, the town’s director of public information, marketing and special events. “It will be interesting to see the vulnerability data and recommendations that this study produces for the unique community of Duck, North Carolina.”

For more information about WCU’s Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines, visit the website

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