In a small town in eastern North Carolina, storefronts are shuttered, the high school is closed and the police department is about to get shut down. The cause? Climate change. 

In a story from The New York Times, David Leonhardt describes the slow death of Fair Bluff, a formerly idyllic town alongside the Lumber River. Like many towns in eastern North Carolina and along the coast, Fair Bluff was devastated by Hurricane Matthew five years ago, and just when it looked like the town might be able to rebuild, it was hit again by Hurricane Florence in 2018. 

On the coastal plain, flood-prone settlements are especially vulnerable “because of the rise in extreme rainfall and severe hurricanes spurred by climate change,” Leonhardt reports. As wildfires destroy towns in California and hurricanes wreck neighborhoods in Florida, severe storms are flooding towns in North Carolina, leaving buildings demolished and roads caved in. 

In traveling to Fair Bluff this summer, reporters found a town unlikely to ever recover from a series of extreme weather events. 

“The high school, the grocery store, and other shops never reopened after Matthew,” Leonhardt writes. “Downtown storefronts sit vacant, with trash strewn about. The only local factory closed, too. The population, about 1,000, fell by half. Al Leonard, a town official, says the town may soon eliminate the police department—and along with it, his job.”

Fair Bluff’s problem isn’t a temporary one. As storms increase in frequency and severity, the damage to coastal towns is piling up, rendering repairs unaffordable. The estimated cost of cleaning up Fair Bluff’s old downtown area is $10 million. 

Meanwhile, many residents are deciding to leave for safer shores, shrinking the population and tax base. About 100 miles northeast of Fair Bluffs, a town called Seven Springs may be past saving, Leonhardt reports. The population has gone down to about 55, with more people leaving after each major flood in recent years. 

“Stephen Potter, the mayor, is hoping to replace some of the lost property tax by turning an empty lot into an overflow parking lot for some of the R.V.s that visit a nearby state park,” Leonhardt writes. Potter is quoted as saying, “I really don’t want to be the mayor that presides over the death of Seven Springs.” 

Leonhardt’s verdict is grim. 

“Rebuilding isn’t just expensive; it also often involves investing in a place at obvious risk of future destruction,” he writes. “Fair Bluff offers a worrisome glimpse into the future. The increasing frequency of extreme weather has left countless towns, in the U.S. and around the world, vulnerable to both physical devastation and economic insolvency.”

Support independent local journalism. Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle. 

Follow Staff Writer Jasmine Gallup on Twitter or send an email to