Hurricanes seem to be riding a groove that starts off the west coast of Africa, approaches Florida and then swoops north to hit North Carolina on the chin. Since 2016, the state has been struck by three such hurricanes — Matthew, Florence and now Dorian.
What makes the pummeling worse is that it’s not a pattern that’s likely to pass. It’s possible with climate change that North Carolina may be sitting in a new Hurricane Alley where big storms will come more often and dump more rain on the flood-prone Coastal Plain. Researchers studying coastal North Carolina hurricanes since 1898 found that six of the seven highest precipitation events have occurred within the last 20 years.
North Carolina can’t do anything about the path of hurricanes, but it can do more to reduce its vulnerability to them. It’s time for major resources in the state — public and private — to join in an effort to make North Carolina safer and more resilient in the face of hurricanes and rising sea levels.
Perhaps Gov. Roy Cooper, after he’s done with a week of telling people to get out of harm’s way, can call for a longer look at how climate change is affecting North Carolina east of I-95 and what changes are needed in response to the new reality. The review could bring together scientists, local elected officials, environmental groups, leaders of military bases and those involved in tourism, agriculture and real estate development.
In 1994, Gov. Jim Hunt appointed such a commission to come up with environment polices and development regulations as part of an initiative called Year of The Coast. The effort produced a slew of recommendations for strengthening the state’s then 20-year-old Coastal Area Management Act.
While the 1994 review focused on land use and preventing the pollution of coastal waters, a review now would have to address threats posed by climate change. Much is said about making the coast more resilient by setting stronger building codes and encouraging natural rather than hardened shorelines. Those are positive steps, but the state must also get serious about limiting development, especially on the Outer Banks.
State policy is fueling Outer Banks development even as sea level rises and more frequent hurricanes are likely. The state Department of Transportation plans a $500 million, 4.7-mile toll bridge across Currituck Sound. In February, NCDOT opened a $252 million replacement bridge to carry N.C. 12 over the Oregon Inlet. Meanwhile sandbags and beach re-nourishment programs are being used to hold back the sea and housing developments continue to grow in vulnerable coastal areas.
The 1994 push to protect the coast was largely undercut by objections from business interests and local property owners. Since 2011, the Republican-led General Assembly has favored development on the coast as the region’s population and economy have grown. But the time of taking short-term profits and ignoring long-term threats has to end. It’s time to limit development in vulnerable areas, to let the rising sea take beachfront homes, to make natural shorelines the rule and not the exception, to better control stormwater runoff into rivers, to enforce strict building codes and move homes and commercial buildings out of flood-prone areas. And it is past time to stop building bigger bridges to carry more people on to the Outer Banks.
Making the North Carolina coast more natural and resilient will meet with strong resistance from some, but hurricanes are telling us what needs to be done.