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North Carolina Reconsiders Climate Change During Hurricane Recovery

North Carolina state legislators have constantly rejected the evidence of a warming climate, and its impacts on sea level. However, residents are showing growing concern of sea-level rise and a desire for better climate policies.

Thousands of North Carolina homes were flooded during Hurricane Florence, this house among them. IMG credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

North Carolina has been hit by two hurricanes in the 2017 and 2018 hurricane seasons, and as a result, the residents of the state are showing growing concern of climate change and sea level rise. When Hurricane Florence hit in September 2018, many residents still hadn’t recovered from 2016’s Hurricane Matthew. Florence flooded tens of thousands of homes and entire freeways. It produced record storm surges of 9 to 13 feet. Just weeks later, the remains of Hurricane Michael caused wide-spread power outages and even more flooding.

When addressing extreme weather, Geoff Gisler, a Chapel Hill-based attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, which works on coastal protection, clean energy, and other issues said,

“It's something we're seeing not only from the governor's office but also on the ground. 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."

Governor Cooper: We Must Combat Climate Change

Governor Roy Cooper of North Carolina, elected in the 2016 election, is working on climate change policies and has a different climate agenda than his predecessor. Governor Cooper has pledged a 40% cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2025, as per the Paris Climate Accord. State agencies are now ordered to think about climate change in their decision-making, as well as integrate mitigation and adaptation to climate change into their operations and programs. This order is a stark contrast to legislation passed six years ago banning officials from basing coastal policies on climate change and rising sea levels.

After Hurricane Florence, Governor Cooper issued an executive order at mitigating and adapting to climate change.

Governor Cooper made a statement in October of 2018, stating

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

The state director for the Sierra Club also made a statement on Governor Cooper's climate action.

"We think the executive order is a breakthrough. For the first time, there is a comprehensive structure and framework to discuss these issues."

Lawmakers Rejected Sea Level Rise Protection Plan

North Carolina has over 3,000 miles of coastline, mostly small islands that are entirely destroyed by storms. There are many new housing developments on these small islands where developers are ignoring the storm risk to the people and property there. In 2012, state legislators rejected a report from the state Coastal Resources Commission detailing the risks of sea level rise. It looked into the end of the century and predicted that a 39-inch rise was possible. The report also helped with future planning. A new report was published in 2016 that was much shorter and looked into planning the next 30 years.

Flooding, Buying Out Homes, and Vulnerable Towns

Cities are weighing their options, considering whether they should start elevating homes to protect from sea level, and/or buy homes that are at risk (buyouts) and build them elsewhere. However, David Salvensen stated that hurricanes drop so much rain in North Carolina that even homes not in a floodplain are at risk. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has been buying out homes since the 1990s. Buyouts are not cost-effective and they are wasting property. In addition, the Adam Short, the planning director for the North Carolina city of Kinston said that they disrupt communities and hurt low-income residents. He added,

"It's a very cost-effective way to mitigate risk, but it doesn't do anything to prevent flooding"

Even worse, in 1990 fewer than 23,000 people lived in the North Carolina Research Triangle Floodplain. By 2016, that number has doubled, according to the North Carolina Budget and Management Offices. Will McDow, director of resilient landscapes stated that buyouts were a necessary strategy, but that legislators need to think about more long-term solutions. Dams, levees, and other expensive project are expected to be considered by legislators for additional flood control methods. James Hoggard, the mayor of Windsor, however, has focused on buyouts and preparing low-lying businesses for flooding. Hoggard said,

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


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