One North Carolina photographer and journalist investigates sea level rise in the Outer Banks

Story by Sandra Davidson | Photos by Justin Cook

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

I’m going to guess I was in the fourth grade when I learned about the Outer Banks. In the 1990s (as now), that was the grade in which North Carolina public school students learned about our state’s history and culture. If I had to summarize in key words what I remember from that curriculum, they would be Graveyard of the Atlantic, lighthouses, and First in Flight—markers of stories so grand they defined how I imagined the Outer Banks for most of my adolescence.

As I grew older, though, stories about big storms, erosion, and relentless development began to fill the frame.

The unique geography of the Outer Banks is what makes the vistas beautiful, the fishing world-class, and the surfing and boating so popular. Geography has shaped and defined the islands’ culture and it is what drives tourism and development. It is also what makes the islands supremely vulnerable to climate change.

Seen from above, the barrier islands that compose the Outer Banks look especially fragile. Thin ribbons of sand trailing more than 200 miles are flanked by brackish sounds and the vast Atlantic Ocean. No wonder images of washed-out Outer Banks roads, flooded homes, and broken piers inundate news feeds every few hurricane seasons. On this stretch of coast, it’s disturbingly easy to imagine what rising sea levels and bigger storms will do, and what that will mean for the people who live there.

Concern about sea-level rise on the Outer Banks is at the core of photographer Justin Cook’s project Tide and Time: Sea Level Rise and Solastalgia on North Carolina's Outer Banks. Published in May 2021 by CoastalReview.org and the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, Tide and Time is a photography and reporting project that tells the story of the Salvo Community Cemetery, which is slowly washing away into the Pamlico Sound. A confluence of manmade factors is driving the fate of the small cemetery on Hatteras Island: Our dependence on fossil fuels is making the world hotter. Glaciers are melting. Seas are rising. Storms are getting stronger. All the while, people still want to visit, own, and maintain beachfront properties, and the livelihood of many coastal communities depends on tourism and development. In the Outer Banks specifically, strategies in one area to mitigate the slow, westward movement of these sandy islands—a natural process over millennia—and sea-level rise often have negative consequences in other areas of the same island. For every action, there is a reaction.

Reported over four years, Tide and Time investigates the ecological effects of sea-level rise and the emotional and psychological impact that the gradual loss of this cemetery is having on longtime locals. Cook introduces readers to Ruby Jean Hooper, an 85-year-old woman whose husband, grandparents, and great-grandparents are buried there, and who wants to be buried there, too. We meet Jenny Farrow Creech and Dawn Farrow Taylor, former president and vice-president of the Hatteras Island Genealogical and Preservation Society, who are leaders in a grassroots effort to protect the cemetery. Cook’s portraits of these women—rendered through interviews, images, and archival photographs—capture the profound relationship each has with the land and the deep sense of loss they feel when imagining a time when their community cemetery is completely under water. Cook says this “sense of loss, homesickness, and distress specifically caused by environmental change around someone’s home and a sense of powerlessness over that change” is what the philosopher Glenn Albrecht called solastalgia.

“So many climate-change stories I see—and these stories are important— are about the catastrophes and are about the hurricanes, but they’re not about the slow creep of climate change in people’s lives every single day,” Cook told me recently. “I wanted to know more about that.”

Cook uses photographs, scientific data, and these residents’ stories to paint a full picture of what’s at stake. In one passage, he cites an East Carolina University study that estimates that the sea will rise by four and a half feet in northeastern North Carolina by 2100. A 1970 National Park Service aerial photo of the cemetery juxtaposed with a 2017 aerial photo by Cook shows how much of the shoreline is already under water. Cook reports that several bodies in the cemetery have been sucked out into the sound already. Dawn Taylor told him, “I know this sounds morbid, but they are forever finding bones that look human out there in the sound.”

When I asked Cook what his approach offers to the genre of climate-change stories, he said this:

I think it helps us give words to things that we are experiencing. . . . Part of it is expanding the visual vocabulary of what climate change is. It’s starving polar bears. It’s wildfires in California. It’s also like. . . Dawn Taylor talks about how when she slept in her grandparents’ house in Avon [as a child] she could see the beam from the Hatteras lighthouse, but erosion has changed that situation and the lighthouse has been moved and she can’t see it anymore. I think a lot of people can resonate with this idea of feeling like the things from childhood that you loved have disappeared or been taken away.

Dawn Taylor’s story about the Cape Hatteras lighthouse triggered a memory of my own. In 1999, the year after my fourth-grade introduction to the Outer Banks, the lighthouse was moved 1,500 feet back from the shore. I followed that story closely in the daily paper, where it was often front-page news. We’ve been skirting the issues Cook documented for a long time.

Cook is one of 385 artists who in 2020 received North Carolina Artist Support Grants, which the North Carolina Arts Council created to support individual artists during the pandemic. His grant helped to fund Tide and Time. In addition to publishing a print version of Tide and Time, Cook is developing an outdoor exhibit of the project that he plans to display at the Salvo Community Cemetery this September, barring any big storms. Learn more about his work at www.JustinCookPhoto.Com, or on Instagram @JustinCookPhoto. Read Tide and Time here.

Sandra Davidson

Sandra Davidson is the marketing and communications director of the North Carolina Arts Council, where she curates, produces, and develops content that highlights the diversity and vitality of the arts in our state. Trained as a folklorist, she is a practicing photographer and multimedia storyteller who lives in Durham.

Justin Cook

JUSTIN COOK is based in Durham, North Carolina but works everywhere. His long-term photographic essays tell stories about resiliency in communities living along the edges in America, often by focusing on environmental issues and climate change. He believes storytelling that not only shines light on these issues, but also investigates solutions is crucial to social change. Justin is a 2006 graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Journalism and Mass Communication. His work has been funded by The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting Connected Coastlines Initiative, The North Carolina Arts Council, The Puffin Foundation, and honored by The Magenta Foundation, Photolucida, POYi, The Society of Professional Journalists, and American Photography. Learn more about his work at www.JustinCookPhoto.com.

Introducing Spark the Arts

North Carolina Arts Council

Thursday, June 24, 2021

As our state and nation turn a corner in the pandemic, we are looking to the future. We know that North Carolina’s recovery from the pandemic depends on the arts, just as its endurance of it did. What would the past 15 months have looked like for you without books, music, and movies?
The songs we make and sing together, the dances we dance, the stories we see ourselves in on screens, canvases, or pages lift our spirits. They bring us together. They help us grow.
Vitality. Fellowship. Healing. These are the qualities the arts spark, and they are what North Carolina needs to rebuild its economy and emerge resiliently from the pandemic. This is why we’ve created Spark the Arts, a statewide campaign to inspire public participation in the arts across North Carolina.

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