Guest Opinion: The reality of running a business on the front lines of climate change
Published 5:41 pm Wednesday, September 18, 2019
By Jamie Anderson
When your place of business is on a street with a “no wake” sign, you have to get creative about how you run your shop. I’ve lived on the Outer Banks for over 30 years and owned my bookshop in Manteo for 7 years, so I’m accustomed to nor’easters and hurricanes. But in the last several years I’ve witnessed a significant uptick in the number of flooding events. It’s affecting our entire area. It’s affecting my bottom line.
In this part of the state we are, quite literally, on the front lines of climate change. Sea level rise isn’t just a concept we read about. The increasing frequency and intensity of storms and heavy rainfall isn’t just something we see reporters talk about on the evening news. We observe these aspects of our reality on a near-daily basis.
When I opened my bookshop 7 years ago I knew the area may experience flooding. Most areas around here are subject to flooding during big storms, and unfortunately the frequency of storms has increased during the time I’ve been in business in downtown Manteo. In my 7 years in this space, we’ve flooded five times now, including an inch or so of water in Dorian, and experienced a number of close calls. By the time Hurricane Michael arrived, even though it was downgraded to a tropical storm, it still caused two feet of water in the store, while most previous hurricanes hadn’t produced floods that exceeded 4-8 inches.
These types of events impact a small business owner, and over the years I’ve learned to adjust operations to be more prepared for flooding events. Adjusting my operations means I try not to display merchandise lower than 24 inches off the ground. That may not sound like a meaningful figure, but take a moment to consider that I’m unable to leverage 30 percent of my retail space. I can’t display books in that space or use it for storage. When the store floods, water has ruined new merchandise and even unopened boxes of brand new books when they are in that area.
Of course, there are losses from having to close the store as a storm approaches and for cleanup after a flood event occurs. And there’s the rising cost of flood insurance, which doesn’t cover all your losses. The federal flood insurance program now deducts 10-15 percent for depreciation on new inventory after you pay your deductible. Essentially, even without the deductible, the insurance money will never cover the cost of replacement book-for-book. I’ve seen this flooding issue drive business owners away from downtown Manteo, but I don’t intend to go.
I’m getting better at anticipating the impacts and guarding against them. Hardly anything stored or displayed less than two feet off the ground. The store has no carpet, so we can simply bleach and mop the concrete floors once the water has receded. We don’t have the luxury of being anything but vigilant about storing inventory out of floodwater’s reach. When we have enough warning to know a big storm is coming, with lots of volunteer help from our community, we remove everything three feet and below to minimize damages. It’s not the ideal way to run a business, but it’s the price we pay to live in this beautiful coastal area of North Carolina – an area that is experiencing more and more impacts from our changing climate.
You have to be a flexible, roll-with-the-punches kind of person to want to live and work in the path of storms and rising tides. The beautiful ocean views and unique wildlife of this region make it all worthwhile, though, and it helps to know that those of us who choose the coastal life are critical elements of the state’s tourism economy, with Outer Banks visitors contributing more than $102 million to the state’s economy annually. When visitors come to the Outer Banks for vacation, they need hotels, rental properties and grocery stores, and they enjoy having great restaurants and retail shopping options – including bookstores! – available. The coastal business community is happy to serve that need.
Going forward, more conversations between municipalities and business owners would be helpful for us to all work together to come up with solutions to mitigate these issues. We’re all interested in making downtown Manteo a more vibrant place where people want to do business. I’m eager to see some innovative solutions implemented, and since “necessity is the mother of invention,” perhaps in the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian – less than a year after Michael – we will see some progress.
Jamie Anderson is a resident of Kitty Hawk and the owner of Downtown Books in Manteo.