So far, the hurricane season has been quiet, but in North Carolina it’s the quiet before many storms.
Forecasters predict this will be a busy hurricane season with six to 10 hurricanes, but busy is becoming the new normal. North Carolina is sitting in the bullseye of a pattern of increasingly stronger, wetter and more frequent hurricanes and tropical storms. Two recent hurricanes produced flooding within two years that historically occurs once in every 500-years: Matthew (2016) and Florence (2018).
Now conditions are growing even riper for dangerous storms.
Kathie Dello, an N.C. State University assistant professor and the state climatologist, said the warming caused by the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is fueling hurricanes and tropical storms that spread floodwater across the coastal plain and cause flash floods and mudslides in the mountains.
“We’re just supercharging these storms and seeing extra precipitation associated with that,” she said.
Climate change is clear in North Carolina. Dello said 2019 was the warmest on record in the state and 2018 was the wettest. This year, she said, “We’re coming close to both of those (records).”
Efforts to slow climate change are moving forward in the U.S., but decades of more-damaging storms are inevitable because of the warming that’s already occurred. Given that, North Carolina is taking steps to better prepare the state to absorb the blows.
After the twin punches from Matthew and Florence, in 2019 North Carolina became the second state to establish an office dedicated to improving its resiliency to storms. The North Carolina Office of Recovery and Resiliency (NCORR) is using nearly $1 billion in U.S. Housing and Urban Development funds to improve flood control, raise and strengthen homes and buildings and move houses out of areas prone to flooding. Much of the effort benefits low-income residents miles from the coast.
The state supports raising homes at risk of flooding two-feet higher than Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) standards.
“If we are rebuilding homes we don’t want to do it again in three years,” said Laura Hogshead, director of NCORR. “We want to elevate it to a state where it should survive the next storm. But longer term, we are offering an awful lot of buyouts to get folks out of flood plains.”
There are now 1,451 homes in 14 zones eligible for buyouts under a voluntary program.
It’s a smart approach, but it may not be enough. Many residents are hesitant to sell. The state has bought out fewer than 300 homes, in part because the pandemic has slowed the sales process.
Hogshead said more flooding will likely change minds. She said half of those who sought federal aid after Matthew were hit again by Florence. After that, she said, “A lot of them said, ‘Get me out of here.’ ”
With climate change accelerating, the preparation must pick up the pace. That means the government will have to do more telling and less cajoling.
Gov. Roy Cooper took a step in that direction in July when he issued an executive order requiring that all state-funded projects ”reduce construction in a floodplain to the greatest extent feasible.”
“We have to consider climate change. I have seen that shift happening,” Hogshead said. “Of course it’s not happening fast enough, but it has to keep happening and probably get more aggressive.”
Even with its chin jutting into the ocean, North Carolina has not had a direct hit from a Category 5 hurricane. But climate change is raising the odds of being struck by the Big One and getting pummeled by smaller ones.
In response, it’s good that North Carolina isn’t just putting up plywood. With stronger flood controls, home buyouts and better building standards, it’s putting up a fight.
Associate opinion editor Ned Barnett can be reached at 919-829-4512, or nbarnett@ newsobserver.com