The Art of Getting By

Ad Hoc Adaptations to Climate Change in Coastal Communities

Brianna Castro
Harvard University

Publication Date: 2021


Climate change disproportionately impacts coastal residents in the United States. Prior studies document institutional efforts to adapt to sea level rise through projects like seawalls, beach nourishment, and property acquisitions to protect communities from rising seas. Existing research examining adaptation in North Carolina finds these measures disproportionately protect wealthy coastal communities and buyout and relocate lower-income residents in communities with high racial diversity. Such studies capture institutional adaptations, but do not include ad hoc adaptations by homeowners impacted by sea level rise. This research examines how homeowners are adapting to climate hazards by analyzing ethnographic and interview data from 50 households in two coastal counties in North Carolina, a state with one of the most climate-vulnerable shorelines in the country. Analysis of homeowner response to climate change hazards focuses on ad hoc adaptations within the institutional adaptation context along the North Carolina coast. Findings indicate that homeowners recognize climate hazards and regularly adapt on their own, regardless of adaptations enacted by institutions in their communities. Ad hoc adaptations may provide short-term protection from climate hazards, but have questionable long-term efficacy as sea levels rise and storm strength and frequency increases. Unless institutional supports are provided to communities currently experiencing climate change, residents with differing levels of resources will be expected to adapt on their own. Such an approach will be a mechanism through which climate change exacerbates existing inequalities.


As governments and institutions wrestle with how to mitigate climate change and manage its effects using development, resilience, and adaptation policies, people are living with the changing climate in their daily lives. At present, individual adaptation efforts are costly, time-limited, and disproportionately burden marginalized and vulnerable people, ultimately exacerbating existing inequalities (Arcaya et al., 20201; Cutter et al., 20032; Tierney, 2019). This is despite evidence that community-level resilience is improved by investing in social, as well as infrastructure-related mitigation measures (Aldrich & Meyer, 20153; Klinenberg, 20184). Disasters change the demographic profile of affected communities (Fussell et al., 20175; Logan et al., 20166; Raker, 20207). Persistent, gradually worsening climate hazards, punctuated by more frequent and severe disasters, are likely to have similar impacts. Those with more resources have greater options for responding and adapting to the changing climate (Siders et al., 20198). With fewer resources, poor and marginalized communities suffer the most in times of environmental crisis (Dunlap & Brulle 20159; Fussell 201510; Pellow 200011) and during disaster recovery (Gotham & Greenberg, 201412; Howell & Elliott, 201813). Beyond material inequality, community cohesion and cultural attachment are key determinants in the overall impact of environmental crisis (Bates, 201614; Klinenberg, 201515).

Coastal resource managers across institutions invest in a diverse portfolio of adaptation strategies to protect residents and structures vulnerable to climate change. Scenario-based studies predict that adaptation decisions in the future will be rooted in economics—a combination of the tax base and density of a community—naturally placing rural and socioeconomically vulnerable communities at the back of the line for adaptation investments (Lincke & Hinkel, 201816; Martinich et al., 201317). Existing research indicates that historical adaptation investments provide greater protection for wealthier communities, increasing the vulnerability of already marginalized communities (Howell & Elliott, 2018; Jin et al., 201518; Siders & Keenan, 202019). Affluent communities are also considered more adept at advocating for managed retreat from locations facing imminent sea level rise (Hino et al., 201720; Mach et al., 201921; Siders, 201922). One example of this is advocacy efforts after Hurricane Sandy on Staten Island (Koslov, 201623). In contrast, many severely eroding areas have a do-nothing approach when it comes to rising seas. If residents were to gradually leave these areas on their own, this kind of abandonment would ultimately cost governments less and homeowners more than managed retreat (Hino et al., 2017).

What the current literature does not specify, are the mechanisms driving adaptation, or lack thereof, during the period when communities are experiencing climate-related stressors. It can be assumed that people are being forced to adapt to shifting climate pressures on their own. Households must adapt daily to climate stressors, while institutional responses happen simultaneously, but on a different timeline. It is important to consider the interaction of existing mitigation programs and policies and micro-level adaptations.

Current Study

Considering the gaps in our understanding of why and how people are adapting to climate change and how that is impacted by institutional adaptation contexts, this study examines how residents in coastal North Carolina, a climate-vulnerable region of the United States, are managing climate change hazards in their daily lives. Understanding this allows differences in ad hoc adaptation to be considered by socioeconomic vulnerability, climate hazard, and institutional context. Documenting ad hoc adaptation is a necessary first step to informing institutional adaptation planning and unpacking mechanisms for the social effects of climate change.


Research Design

Given that we know so little about the lived experience of climate change, this project uses qualitative methods (in-depth interviews and ethnography) to understand why and how homeowners manage climate change impacts in their daily lives. Data was collected over the course of eight months, from July 2020 through February 2021, that spanned three seasons and included a hurricane and nor’easter season in this climate-vulnerable area. In total, this project includes fifty in-depth interviews with residents, meetings with local and community leaders, and ethnographic observations yielding more than 100 single-spaced pages of field notes. The unique combination of observation across seasons, spending unstructured time with research participants and in the study area, and interviewing residents at length about their management of climate stressors is useful for understanding why and how residents are autonomously adapting to climate change.

Participants, Sample, and Ethical Considerations

This study recruited residents on the Outer and Inner Banks of North Carolina for in-depth interviews and ethnographic observation. Key informant interviews (N = 15) were conducted with officials from local and state government, agencies, and non-profit organizations. Participants (N = 50) were recruited through a snowball sampling approach that began with community contacts provided by local organizations and environmental agencies. Recruitment also included contacting lifelong residents, business owners, farmers, and fisherman, as well as homeowners with properties listed for sale. Respondents were provided digital copies of the study information sheet and a consent form. Consent procedures were also implemented in person before interviews were conducted. These documents, the study design, and data collection methods were approved by the Institutional Review Board of Harvard University on January 06, 2020 (IRB#19-2050).

Data Analysis

Interviews and fieldnotes were transcribed and stored on a password protected computer, de-identified, and analyzed using NVivo 11 software. Interview transcripts and field notes were analyzed using open coding first, followed by thematic coding of property, lifestyle, and risk adaptations. Open coding of the data allowed for themes to emerge from the observed data such as risk aversion and everyday adaptation. Residential interviews were also coded for mentions of institutional contexts, such as references to local government agencies, highway maintenance, disaster recovery policies and programs, government agencies, insurance, and community and financial institutions. Interviews were coded for resident descriptions of climate change, general ecological change, and perceptions about the future in the context of climate hazards. Lastly, policy documents were coded using focused codes identified in interviews and field notes, such as home adaptations or insurance take-up, in order to identify potential overlap in household and institutional mitigation efforts.

Preliminary Findings

Preliminary findings in this section are based on interviews with residents, meetings with leaders, and observations. Residents throughout the Outer and Inner Banks speak about adapting their homes to climate conditions as second nature. They base their home adaptations on approaches that have worked for hurricanes in the past. Table 1 below includes common adaptions to home and property made by residents throughout the study area.

Wind Water
Storm Surge Flood Events Rainfall and Tidal Flooding
Hurricane Straps for Roof Minor Home Raising Purchasing Pumps to Remove Water from Yard
Hurricane Straps for Roof Minor Home Raising Purchasing Pumps to Remove Water from Yard
High Impact Windows Parking Platform Installing Tide Gates in Canals on Property
Post and Beam Construction Storm Shutters Installing Pumps in Ditches and Canals on Property
Thicker posts (6x6 or 4x4) in House Framing Floor Plugs (Historic) Parking Platform
Cedar Shake Siding Raising Septic Tanks and Septic Fields Raising Septic Tanks and Septic Fields
Wind Resistant Shingles or Panel Roofing Constructing Platforms for First Floor Properties (Washer and Dryer, Water Heater) Constructing Platforms for First Floor Properties (Washer and Dryer, Water Heater)
Adding Generators to Home Installing Bulkheads or Levees on Property Adding Fill to Elevate Property
Wall Panels Instead of Drywall Foam Insulation Under Home (Replacing Fiberglass) Elevated Air Conditioning Units
Water Resistant Interior Flooring

These adaptations to home and property are not unusual upgrades, but common changes to homes in the area. Most homes in the focal areas of study are at least 15 years old, and the majority were 20-30 years old. These homes were built before building codes were updated to require new elevation heights or elevated septic fields. This data reveals that residents living in older homes gradually make these ad hoc adaptations to their properties depending on the location-based hazards they face. The structures of residents who purchase new homes, on the other hand, are already better adapted to coastal conditions thanks to updated requirements such as flood elevation standards. Constantly updating building codes to include functioning ad hoc adaptations common in coastal areas is critical to ensuring that newly constructed housing is built to a climate-adaptive standard.

The choice to not invest in vulnerable property was commonly expressed in interviews and through direct observation. This is distinct from managed retreat in the planning sense; residents are autonomously retreating from climate hazards in big and small ways. Farmers in Hyde County regularly stop planting the borders of fields along canals where saltwater intrusion leaves the soil salinized and less productive. At times their retreat from entirely unproductive fields is both temporary (multiple years to multiple decades) and facilitated by government programs that provide funds for entering unproductive acres into wetland restoration programs. Homeowners often stop filling one area on their property and allow it to be submerged with water to the benefit of the rest of the parcel. When some structures are destroyed, owners build them back further from the water to reduce storm damage. This is often seen with docks that residents choose to build further back from the sound, rather than rebuilding them out in the open water where they are more vulnerable to hurricanes.

Successful adaptation measures, such as those discussed above, rely on deep local knowledge of ecological conditions, landscape, and social practices. For example, local residents indicated they would seek the advice of other local residents about a property’s vulnerability to flooding, the best place to build on a specific parcel, or how much fill is needed to reduce standing water during high-tide events. Respondents expressed that residents believe their own local knowledge to be more nuanced and informative than the designations of flood maps or insurance providers, often prompting a personal assumption of risk outside insurance mechanisms in place. The ad hoc adaptions listed in Table 1 were equally likely to be present in areas with or without institutional adaptions of beach nourishment, shoreline armoring, or property buy-outs, but rather were pervasive throughout the study area.

Discussion of Preliminary FIndings

This study investigated how homeowners are adapting to climate change. Preliminary findings included here are part of a larger, ongoing research project with additional findings on the institutional adaptation context of this research. Unlike quick-onset disasters, coastal residents faced with climate changes linked to sea level rise, more frequent and intense storms, saltwater intrusion, and land subsidence must constantly manage these climate hazards. Residents adapt independently of institutional adaptations such as beach nourishment or dike installation. For example, coding of institutional documents alongside interviews reveals that residents both advocate for beach nourishment or dyke installation near their property while at the same time installing their own dikes or sandbag walls for protection. Increased adaptation measures do not, according to interviews, deter homeowners from adapting their properties ad hoc. In contrast, in some cases the absence of large-scale resilience measures to prevent flooding obligates homeowners to find their own adaptation solutions such as pumping water or digging drainage canals. Though residents have often received funds through disaster recovery programs or flood insurance claims, the adaptions to homes and property discussed here were ad hoc. These ad hoc adaptations focus primarily on homes and property and include improving property, managing water, and disinvesting in pieces of property or retreating from hazards in big and small ways, from selling a home to rebuilding a destroyed dock further from a water line. It is not surprising that homeowners are adapting by spending money and time to make their homes and property more resilient to the changing climate. What is surprising, though, is that we know so little about what these adaptations entail. These findings represent a foundational first step in unpacking the ways that people manage the climate change hazards that are now a chronic issue in climate-vulnerable communities. One might look at the ad hoc adaptations discussed in this report and imagine wealthy homeowners spend whatever it takes to live comfortably—in some instances that was the case. In most instances, however, residents were firmly middle class, including retired school teachers, forestry service workers, or bank employees. Participants also include farmers or fisherman, some of whom were wealthier than others, but most who live modest lifestyles. Many residents inherited their homes or built their homes themselves in the 1970s, which was a trend on Hatteras and Ocracoke Islands. The ad hoc adaptations residents make are rarely luxurious and often require spending tradeoffs in other areas of their lives. This process has real costs and places different burdens on those with different levels of socioeconomic resources. Some marginalized or vulnerable residents are forced to cut their losses, moving far enough to be out of harm’s way. Similarly, residents with the means can ultimately move out of the vulnerable area all together and avoid the costs of managing climate impacts. If communities experiencing climate change now remain unsupported, this research suggests that ad hoc adaptations will be a mechanism through which climate change exacerbates existing inequalities in climate stressed communities.

Limitations and Future Research

While this study captures how households are adapting to climate change in ad hoc ways in rural coastal communities, there are certain limitations that need to be acknowledged. Although the area of study may exhibit qualities common to coastal communities, the snowball recruitment of participants on the Inner and Outer Banks of North Carolina is not representative and therefore not necessarily generalizable to all areas stressed by climate change. The sampling approach used for this research reflected broader community demographics in terms of income levels, race and ethnic diversity across homeowners, although the study did not sample renters for this project. These findings provide a foundation for a more representative survey project to examine ad hoc adaptations at the household level and costs associated with such measures.


As communities experience the slow shifts of climate change, they must make adaptations that are not addressed through infrastructure adaptations and municipal planning efforts. My findings suggest that ad hoc adaptations provide short-term protection from growing climate hazards, but have questionable long-term efficacy as sea levels rise and storm strength and frequency increases. Ad hoc adaptations protect from chronic flooding and past hurricane strengths but will not be sufficient if the areas where residents live are chronically inundated by sea level rise or encounter stronger storms as climate change predictions suggest. Residents are forced to invest their personal resources as climate hazards outpace institutional responses. This process has real costs and places unequal burdens on those with different levels of socioeconomic resources. Unless institutional supports are provided to communities currently experiencing climate change, ad hoc adaptations will become a mechanism through which climate change exacerbates existing inequalities in climate-stressed communities.


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Suggested Citation:

Castro, B. (2021). The Art of Getting By: Ad Hoc Adaptations to Climate Change in Coastal Communities (Natural Hazards Center Mitigation Matters Research Report Series, Report 3). Natural Hazards Center, University of Colorado Boulder.

Castro, B. (2021). The Art of Getting By: Ad Hoc Adaptations to Climate Change in Coastal Communities (Natural Hazards Center Mitigation Matters Research Report Series, Report 3). Natural Hazards Center, University of Colorado Boulder.