In the wake of Hurricane Harvey’s devastation, there are important questions to be asked about how North Carolina can better prepare for the growing number of natural disasters that are predicted to hit our state in the coming years.
In a recent report from Pew Charitable Trusts, flooding is now our state’s second most common natural hazard, occurring an average of every 7.6 days. Between 2000 and 2015, 17 federal disasters and emergencies were declared for floods, hurricanes, and severe storms in North Carolina, yielding $456 million in total assistance from the U.S. government.
It is now anticipated that floods and hurricanes could cost vulnerable North Carolina counties more than $1 million a year. It is also estimated that 356,000 people live in flood hazard areas and more than 7,000 properties have experienced repetitive losses from flooding. Additionally, there are 183 critical facilities such as hospitals and power plants that are in high-exposure areas.
During Hurricane Matthew last October, 26 people were killed and the state incurred more than $1.5 billion in damage. Though there was a tremendous outpouring of support for flood victims, including thousands of volunteers serving 1.6 million meals and delivering more than 200,000 goods and services, we need to shift from a reactive stance to proactive planning.
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Following the impact of Hurricane Floyd in 1999, for example, there were state efforts to channel rivers and relocate vulnerable hog and poultry farms as well as waste treatment plants. But in recent years, many of these efforts have stalled. And the legislature has mandated that no state rule can exceed the requirements of federal environmental rules, and no local requirement can exceed state standards.
One rule that has been rolled back, for instance, required natural buffer areas along rivers and streams to limit and filter runoff going into waterways – protecting water quality in our rivers and controlling flooding. The legislature determined that the regulation was ineffective and added unnecessary expense for developers. In the same vein, new state policies have made it easier for developers to build projects with impervious surfaces.
The result: During Hurricane Matthew, the storm surge from the Atlantic was exacerbated by waters flowing from the Triangle, inundating the low-lying floodplains of eastern North Carolina. Because efforts to relocate farms and waste water plants had stopped, 14 hog waste lagoons were flooded while the storm killed over 3 million hogs and more than 2 million chickens and turkeys.
These costly and dangerous problems are avoidable with intentional action and better planning. One opportunity is to take full advantage of the Pre-Disaster and Flood Mitigation Assistance Program administered by N.C. Emergency Management. These federally funded programs help families and communities relocate vulnerable structures, elevate structures and develop plans for better drainage.
The challenge is that the National Flood Insurance Program, which oversees this funding, is $25 billion in debt and scheduled to expire at the end of September without Congressional action. With Hurricane Harvey, this program will almost certainly be re-authorized. But reforms are critically needed. They include: letting more insurers enter the marketplace to increase coverage and reduce consumer costs, updating flood plain maps, and increasing funding for mitigation efforts – particularly in low-income areas that are most vulnerable to climate impacts.
In addition to federal action, there are clear steps to be taken at home. Better land management is chief among them. As the Triangle, Triad, and Charlotte become more populated, smart development is critical. Rather than having these metros spill into their low-lying surrounds, we need to create “sponge cities” that have pervious surfaces, urban farms, rain gardens, green roofs and underground storage capacity that absorbs the water during big rains.
Along our rivers, we should cultivate more flood plains that retain and absorb rain rather than flowing downriver. Our forests also play an important role. According to N.C. State University, one large tree can lift 100 gallons of water out of the ground and discharge it into the air. Reforestation efforts in western North Carolina are credited with significantly reducing the potential damage of Hurricanes Frances and Ivan in 2004. And conservation investments in Pisgah National Forest now protect over 500,000 acres in the headwaters of the Catawba and French Broad river basins.
Studies show that for every $1 spent on mitigation efforts $4 can be saved on future disaster relief. As we become more susceptible to natural disasters like Harvey and Matthew, this seems to be an investment worth making.
Christopher Gergen is CEO of Forward Impact, a Founding Partner of HQ Community, and author of “Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives.” Stephen Martin is deputy chief of staff at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro. They can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter through @cgergen.