Battered by Matthew and Florence, North Carolina Must Brace for More Intense Hurricanes

A new report on climate change also forecasts rising temperatures, increased precipitation, disruptive sea-level rise and longer droughts.

Apr 24, 2020
A woman speaks into a cellphone asking for help at her flooded residence in Lumberton, North Carolina, on September 15, 2018 in the wake of Hurricane Florence. Credit: Alex Edelman/AFP via Getty Images

A woman speaks into a cellphone asking for help at her flooded residence in Lumberton, North Carolina, on September 15, 2018 in the wake of Hurricane Florence. Credit: Alex Edelman/AFP via Getty Images

Across the low-lying coastal plains of North Carolina, it's not uncommon to see abandoned homes ruined by the floodwaters of Hurricane Florence two years ago in September.

Their doors and windows are missing, with piles of trash and carpeting in the yards, serving as a reminder of what can happen when a major hurricane stalls out over land, dumping more than 30 inches of rain.

With scientists predicting an above-average Atlantic hurricane season this year, a new North Carolina Climate Science Report warns that the state needs to brace for a future of wetter and more intense hurricanes, plus other climate disruptions.

The report, produced by independent climate scientists based in North Carolina, was called for as part of a climate change strategy developed by the state's Democratic governor,  Roy Cooper, which marks a sharp departure from previous North Carolina governors. 

The strategy has put the state on a path to achieving a 70 percent reduction in electric utilities' greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, and carbon neutrality in the power sector by 2050; encouraging more electric vehicles; and bracing for whatever global warming delivers in the coming decades.

For Kemp Burdette, the abandoned homes that dot rural roads in Pender, Bladen and Columbus counties within the expansive Cape Fear watershed, illustrate the lingering and oppressive human toll of hurricanes. 

Double Trouble

In fact, many North Carolinians had not recovered from the devastation of Hurricane Matthew, which killed more than two dozen people in the state in 2016, when Florence hit, killing more than 40 people. That double whammy influenced Cooper's climate policy and was noted in the new North Carolina climate report.

"If you look at the data in that report, there is no question this is going to happen again," said Burdette, who patrols the watershed for the Waterkeeper Alliance, a nonprofit environmental group. 

"And it's very likely to be worse," he said. "This is an incredibly tough issue in North Carolina. Where do you move people out of harm's way? How do you manage the cost of doing that? But at the same time, how do you justify not trying, when you look at the amount of human suffering and damage of storms like Matthew or Florence?"

As if Matthew and Florence weren't enough, Hurricane Dorian, last year's strongest and most destructive storm of the season, barrelled along the state's coast, making landfall on Ocracoke and Hatteras Islands and delivering damaging wind and flood waters.

Sea-Level Rise is 'Virtually Certain' to Continue

The 236-page report was published in March but has mostly gone unnoticed since the Covid-19 pandemic overwhelmed the nation. 

It was prepared under the direction of Kenneth Kunkel, a research professor at North Carolina State University who is part of the team that provided technical support to the 2018 U.S. Fourth National Climate Assessment. The North Carolina report was in part derived from the national study, Kunkel said. The goal was to give Cooper and state officials a document they could use to help shape another report and drive policy on resilience and adaptation to climate change.

There were few surprises. Kunkel said the report's findings are consistent with those of the national assessment, concluding that if global reliance on fossil fuels continues, the state can expect rising temperatures and higher humidity; disruptive sea level rise; increasing intensity and frequency of extreme rainstorms; wetter and more intense hurricanes; longer droughts, and the potential for devastating fires.

Policymakers are the report's primary audience, Kunkel said. "In some ways, it was addressed to state government, but when you write these things, you hope they are more broadly used, and that anyone involved in decision-making over long time horizons, we hope they take these things into account," he said.

Like the scientific reports it draws on, including the most recent from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the report reflected varying degrees of certainty. 

For example, the report found that it is "virtually certain," or at a 99 to 100 percent confidence level, and that sea levels will continue to rise.

It's "very likely," meaning a 90 to 100 percent confidence level, that temperatures will rise in all seasons in North Carolina, the number of warm and very warm nights will increase, and that added humidity will drive heat index values upward.

Warmer Days, Warmer Nights

There is a 66 to 100 percent confidence level that the intensity of the strongest hurricanes will increase, deemed a "likely" occurrence, and it is also likely that the frequency of severe thunderstorms in North Carolina will increase.

The report projected that high-tide flooding will become a near-daily occurrence toward the end of the century.

Meanwhile, top hurricane forecasters at Colorado State University predicted earlier this month that there would be 16 named storms during the Atlantic hurricane season, which runs from June 1 to Nov. 30, and a 69 percent chance for at least one major hurricane to make landfall along a U.S. shoreline. A normal season has 12 such storms. 

Tropical and subtropical Atlantic sea surface temperatures are already warmer than normal, and warmer water fuels more powerful hurricanes, the CSU team said.

The scientists who wrote the North Carolina report said they expected more intense hurricanes based on their belief that ocean waters will continue to warm in the years ahead. 

"You are going to have more fuel to work with," Kunkel said.

North Carolina: from Red to Purple

North Carolina has come a long way in eight years, since the state legislature in 2012 rejected a state Coastal Resources Commission report that detailed the risks of sea-level rise.  

Cooper, elected in 2016, signed an executive order on clean energy and climate in late 2018, after leading the state through the immediate aftermath of Florence.  

"With historic storms lashing our state, we must combat climate change, make our state more resilient and lessen the impact of future natural disasters," he said at the time.

A Republican-controlled state legislature still remains an obstacle. But Cooper's administration is doing what it can, including altering and increasing the dialogue around global warming. His efforts stand out in a region that's been reluctant to act on climate change, as InsideClimate News found in its recent collaborative project, Caught Off Guard.

"Even though the composition of the Legislature doesn't look that different (from 2012), the mood has shifted," said Megan Mullin, an environmental politics professor at Duke University. "And that is in large part because there is a Democratic governor who is really driving this."

In coastal communities that have been hard hit, there still isn't a lot of conversations about the causes of climate change, she said, "but you absolutely get recognition that coastal storms and rising sea levels are a real and growing source of vulnerability."

The strongest driver in climate politics remains partisanship, she added.

State Rep. John Szoka, a Republican and co-chairman of the North Carolina House of Representatives  Energy and Public Utilities Commission, declined through a spokesman to comment on the science report or Cooper's climate strategy. 

A First Step in Resilience Planning

The next step for the Cooper administration is to take the scientific findings and work them into a risk and adaptation report to help guide climate change policy, said Sharon Martin, spokeswoman for the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality. The adaptation report is due for completion on June 1.

North Carolina has plenty of legal, regulatory and physical changes that must be made to protect citizens against the rising temperatures and extreme weather related to climate change: Hog farms spill waste during hurricanes, too many homes and businesses have been built in flood zones,  pressure builds to continue developing a fragile coast. 

At a public meeting earlier this year, another DEQ official described the adaptation report as a first step toward building a new framework for resilience planning in North Carolina.

Rob Moore, director of a water and climate team at the Natural Resources Defense Council, praised the state's science report but said the hard part comes next, and that is, "planning for a future that is in store for us that is radically different from the past."

He added, "If building codes, zoning ordinances and state regulations allow development in areas that will be underwater in the future, then you are accomplishing nothing." 

With climate change, communities in North Carolina and across the country face huge engineering challenges, said Anna Barros, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Duke University, who is on a panel advising the state's climate reports.

"They need to be retrofitted and rebuilt and improved and we cannot do it like we did 30 years ago," she said. Climate change needs to be factored into designs for everything from neighborhood storm culverts to highway systems, she said. 

Environmental advocates like Todd Miller, executive director of the North Carolina Coastal Federation, want a softer approach to coastal development that gives nature more room to maneuver.  

Instead of seawalls and bulkheads to hold back water, Miller suggests living shorelines, using natural elements like native marsh grasses, wood, or even bagged oyster shells at the sea's edge to dampen wave energy and prevent erosion.

"We've made some of our own recommendations to the governor about what should go into the (adaptation) plan," he said. "In a nutshell, we ought to be working with nature, not fighting against it."

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