After Back-to-Back Hurricanes, North Carolina Reconsiders Climate Change

In a state where lawmakers once rejected sea level rise warnings, polls show a growing concern among residents and a desire for better policies.

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Days of rain from Hurricane Florence flooded homes across a wide area of North Carolina. In Spring Lake, nearly 100 miles from the coast, Bob Richling carried items from a home as the Little River flooded. Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Days of rain from Hurricane Florence flooded homes across a wide area of North Carolina in September 2018. In Spring Lake, nearly 100 miles from the coast, Bob Richling carried items from a home as the Little River flooded. Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

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After North Carolina was hit by two major hurricanes within two years and flooding rainfall from a third, the state that once spurned the science of sea level rise in its zoning rules is starting to take climate change more seriously.

A new governor has a different policy agenda that incorporates the risks from climate change, and polls suggest a growing number of North Carolina residents are concerned about climate change and want policies that help protect them from extreme weather.

2018 Year in Review

There are new efforts to get homes and hog-waste lagoons out of floodplains before the next big storm. Gov. Roy Cooper has committed North Carolina to cut its heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent by 2025, consistent with the Paris climate accord. He also instructed state agencies to incorporate climate science into their decision-making, a shift for a state where lawmakers just six years ago passed legislation to prevent North Carolina officials from basing coastal policies on projections of sea level rise.

Some residents hadn’t yet recovered from 2016’s Hurricane Matthew when Hurricane Florence stalled over the state in September and dumped more than 30 inches of rain. The deluge turned interstates into rivers, made the port city of Wilmington almost an island, and flooded tens of thousands of homes. A few weeks later, the remnants of Hurricane Michael brought even more rain to North Carolina, knocking out power to thousands and causing flooding.


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North Carolinians are starting to think about extreme weather in new ways, said Geoff Gisler, a Chapel Hill-based attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, which works on coastal protection, clean energy and other issues.

“It’s something we’re seeing not only from the governor’s office but also on the ground,” Gisler said. “Some folks, maybe five years ago, that were saying that climate change doesn’t exist are now realizing when you have several 500- or 1,000-year storms in a couple of years, that’s not normal.”

Gov. Cooper: ‘We Must Combat Climate Change’

Hurricane Florence produced a record storm surge of 9 to 13 feet and caused catastrophic flooding inland for days. More than 50 people died across the region; 42 in North Carolina. Cooper pegged the damage in North Carolina alone at $17 billion. That’s more than Matthew and the previous historic hurricane, Floyd in 1999, combined, state public safety officials said.

“We need … to be honest with people that there is only so much we can do with that much water,” said Will McDow, director of resilient landscapes with the Environmental Defense Fund, who is based in Raleigh. “We need to be thinking about how to mitigate for climate change, not just adapt to it.”

Volunteers helped rescue residents from flooded homes in New Bern, North Carolina, on the Neuse River, during Hurricane Florence. Credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Volunteers helped rescue residents from flooded homes in New Bern during Hurricane Florence. The storm and its floodwater killed 42 people in North Carolina and caused an estimated $17 billion in damage in the state. Credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

In the wake of Florence, Cooper, a Democrat, broke sharply with his predecessor, Republican Pat McCrory, who had downplayed climate change, and issued an executive order aimed at mitigating and adapting to climate change. State agencies must now evaluate climate change effects and integrate mitigation and adaptation into their programs and operations. And a new council will develop a state clean energy plan.

“With historic storms lashing our state, we must combat climate change, make our state more resilient and lessen the impact of future natural disasters,” Cooper said in late October.

State Department of Environmental Quality spokeswoman Megan Thorpe said “the agencies are now beginning to work through this process.”

Republicans still control the North Carolina statehouse, but they no longer have a power-gripping supermajority. Some environmental advocates are more optimistic about action from the state than they have been in years.

Map: Florence's Extreme Rainfall

“We think the executive order is a breakthrough,” said Molly Diggins, state director of the Sierra Club. “For the first time, there is a comprehensive structure and framework to discuss these issues.”

But politics moves slowly, warned Andrew Coburn, the associate director of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Western Carolina University. And economic and political pressures will mount to rebuild damaged communities as they were, without recognizing the precarious nature of the state’s coast.

Lawmakers Rejected Planning for Sea Level Rise

North Carolina has more than 3,000 miles of coastline, mostly fragile barrier islands with sands that shift during powerful storms.

Developers keep building on the islands, putting more people and property at risk from hurricanes that scientists say are likely to dump more rain because of global warming. Sea-level rise elevates destructive storm surges into coastal communities.

Despite the risk of hurricane damage, people continue building homes at the ocean's edge. Homes on Topsail Beach, shown here before Hurricane Florence, took a beating in the storm. Credit: Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Despite the risk of damage from hurricanes and sea level rise, people continue building homes at the ocean’s edge. While Hurricane Florence’s winds were only at Category 1 strength, it brought 30 inches of rain in some areas. Homes on Topsail Beach, shown here before Florence, took a beating. Credit: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

When the state legislature in 2012 rejected a state Coastal Resources Commission report from its science advisory panel that detailed the risks of sea level rise, comedian Stephen Colbert critically commented: “If your science gives you a result you don’t like, pass a law saying the result is illegal. Problem solved.”

The first report had looked at the risks through the end of the century to assist with future planning and warned that 39 inches of sea level rise was possible. A new report was issued in 2016 with a shorter, 30-year planning horizon. Now the commission will have to decide how to respond to Cooper’s executive order.

The order will “definitely prompt some conversation on the commission” as it wades through its rule-making and deliberations on land-use appeals, said Robin Smith, a former state lawyer and environmental regulator who recently joined the commission. “I think it does tell us this is something that we should be looking at.”

What to Do About Hog Farms in Flood Zones

The ick factor of flooded-out hog waste lagoons—open pits with millions of gallons of pig manure—has become synonymous with hurricanes in North Carolina. At least 33 of some 3,000 such lagoons spilled over during Hurricane Florence.

When a lagoon spills, bacteria-laden waste can wash into waterways, spreading disease and putting drinking water supplies at risk.

The lagoons were required to handle about 8 to 10 inches of rain in about 24 hours under decades-old rules, said Mark Rice, a specialist in animal waste management at North Carolina State University.

A state program bought out 42 hog farms and 103 waste lagoons to remove them from 100-year floodplains after Hurricane Floyd in 1999. But state officials estimate there are still as many as 95 lagoons in floodplains. The state reopened the program after Matthew and after Florence Cooper called for even more buyouts, with officials soliciting new proposals from farmers in October and November.

Flooding and wind from Hurricane Florence damaged farms in several parts of the state. Credit: Carolyn Van Houten/Washington Post via Getty Images
Flooding and wind from Hurricane Florence damaged farms in several parts of the state. At least 33 hog waste lagoons were inundated and spilled into the floodwater. Credit: Carolyn Van Houten/Washington Post via Getty Images

But as flooding claims even higher ground more frequently, even farms in the 500-year floodplain that are ineligible for the buyouts, better waste management option will be needed, Rice said.

The big hog producer Smithfield announced steps of its own after Florence. It plans to cover its lagoons, which would help keep rain from washing out the waste, and to collect methane for energy at many of its 90 hog farms in North Carolina as part of a company goal to reduce emissions 25 percent by 2025.

Flooding, Buyouts and Vulnerable Towns

Cooper has called on his state to “seize the opportunity to rebuild stronger, and smarter” and to learn “lessons from past disasters to prevent future ones.”

Cities are weighing their options, which can include buyouts, elevating homes, and larger, engineering fixes like reservoirs, said Keith Acree, spokesman for the North Carolina Department of Public Safety.

Since the 1990s, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has helped to buy out several thousand flood-prone homes in North Carolina, said David Salvesen, a researcher at North Carolina State University.

But there is growing problem of scale, he said. Florence and Matthew “dropped so much rain that even if you weren’t in the floodplain, there was a good chance you were flooded,” Salvesen said.

Chart: More People Moving Into North Carolina's Floodplains

While buyouts are a critical strategy, the state and local governments still need to reduce or stop development in floodplains, said McDow of the Environmental Defense Fund. He pointed to a region including the cities of Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill. The number of people living in 100-year floodplains there doubled in 25 years to 46,000 by 2016, according to a local council of governments report.

State lawmakers are also likely to take a fresh look at dozens of expensive flood control projects, such as levees or reservoirs, that were identified after Matthew but remain unfunded, Acree said. They include studies of the Tar, Neuse and Lumber river basins. The Neuse and Lumber basins suffered heavy flooding during Florence.

Adam Short, the planning director in Kinston, a city of 22,000 and along the Neuse River in eastern North Carolina, said he would welcome a new look at the projects.

Kinston moved hundreds of families out of a flood zone after Hurricane Floyd. As a result, substantially fewer homes flooded in Matthew and Florence, he said. But buyouts disrupt communities and are financially hard on low-income families, he said.

“It’s a very cost-effective way to mitigate risk, but it doesn’t do anything to prevent flooding,” Short added.

George Skinner salvages belongings from his Kinston, North Carolina, home, damaged by floodwater from the Nuese River during Hurricane Florence. Credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
George Skinner salvages belongings from his Kinston home, damaged by flooding of the Nuese River after Hurricane Florence. Each hurricane since Floyd in 1999 has produced worse flooding in the creek behind his home, he said. Credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

In Windsor, a town of about 3,000 in northeast North Carolina, Mayor James Hoggard described a “wet journey” since he was first elected in 2009, with floods in 2010 and twice in 2016, including Matthew.

Windsor has focused on relocating homes and making sure low-lying downtown businesses are better prepared, the mayor said.

Florence did not flood Windsor but it brought a “highest sense of urgency,” Hoggard said.

“Every weather person or climatologist says these events are going to continue and they are going to get stronger,” he said. “The Earth is warming up. That makes the sky more of a sponge.”

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