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Flood buyouts, climate change and a wetter future among topics at N&O hurricane forum

Less than a month after Hurricane Dorian grazed the North Carolina coast, The News & Observer gathered assorted experts Wednesday to speak about what actions can be taken to prevent the storms’ damage.

The N.C. Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) recently tasked Erin Carey, the N.C. Sierra Club’s coastal conservation coordinator, with helping to develop a set of coastal resiliency policy recommendations that will be used to help shape the agency’s Risk Assessment and Resiliency Plan.

“This is an enormous and nebulous problem,” said Carey, whose group of 11 people developed 13 recommendations for coastal resiliency. “There’s no definition, everybody thinks it’s something different, and if we don’t figure out a way to talk to each other, cooperate with each other and speak the same language, then we’re not going to make the progress that’s required to beat back this crisis.”

Eastern North Carolina suffered severe flooding during 2016’s Hurricane Matthew, even more widespread flooding during 2018’s Hurricane Florence, and isolated yet significant impacts from Hurricane Dorian this month. The storms have caused renewed focus on buying out properties in hurricane-prone areas, and potential shifts in water management strategy across the state. Both were mentioned during Wednesday’s Community Forum, held the last Wednesday of each month at the N.C. Museum of Natural History. The forums are sponsored by The News & Observer.

Weather impact on lower-income residents

Louis Perez, a University of North Carolina history professor, emphasized the importance of considering the impact of disasters on lower-income residents.

“Hurricanes make history, and hurricanes reveal the limits and limitations of human agency,” Perez said.

He added, “We’re talking usually about people of modest means, we’re talking about property damage. Property damage that is irrevocable tends to be property damage (belonging to) people of modest means.”

In North Carolina, the regions that flooded during both Matthew and Florence were already struggling economically — places such as Burgaw, Lumberton and Seven Springs.

Jessica Whitehead, the N.C Office of Recovery and Resliency’s (NCORR) chief resilience officer, urged the audience to avoid thinking about hurricanes as exclusively coastal events, instead considering their impacts in often-poorer communities along the state’s rivers.

Whitehead said that while buying out homes in flood-prone areas are unquestionably part of making North Carolina more resilient, they do not present a simple solution.

“They are not free, they are not cheap and they are not easy,” Whitehead said of such buyouts. “Continuing to throw that option out there as if they are, I think, takes away from what all of this is going to cost.”

NCORR expects, Whitehead said, to receive more applications for buyouts than it can fund, particularly once the Federal Register notice for Hurricane Florence funds is published and the state office begins the process of collecting applications from last fall’s storm.

Wednesday’s panel included a significant amount of discussion about climate change and sea level rise, beginning with Greg Fishel, WRAL’s former chief meteorologist and a self-described former climate change denier. In 2015, the News & Observer reported, Fishel said he began studying the science behind climate change and concluded humans are, in fact, contributing to the Earth’s warmer temperatures.

Climate change means wetter storms

A key impact of climate change, Fishel said Wednesday, is wetter storms. Using a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) database, Fishel found that rainfall events with more than five inches of rain have been increasing.

Since 2010, Wilmington has seen 10 such events. In 2018, the city recorded 100 inches of rainfall, including between 23 inches of rain during Hurricane Florence, per the National Weather Service, with parts of the city receiving 30 inches during the storm.

“If you go out there and say the hurricanes are getting stronger every year and it’s because of climate change, the data doesn’t bear that out in terms of wind production,” Fishel said. “In terms of rain production, it’s a different story.”

Hans Paerl, a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill professor of marine and environmental sciences, was part of a team earlier this year that published a paper in Nature that found North Carolina is trending toward wetter storms over a 120-year record. The paper also found that North Carolina has seen “unprecedently high precipitation since the late 1990s.”

“What we’re concerned about is not only the immediate water quality ramifications,” Paerl said, “but what happens when we get these repeated events and the systems are still recovering from previous events?”

Following 1999’s Hurricane Floyd, Paerl said it took Pamlico Sound between two and three years to return to its typical salinity.

To address the problem of water quality during and after hurricanes, Paerl suggested solutions such as putting buffers around urban areas to slow runoff, preventing the application of fertilizer during the peak of hurricane season and implementing no-till agricultural practices. He also urged the audience to minimize their emissions of greenhouse gases by taking public transportation or using bicycle and pedestrian options.

Spencer Rogers, N.C. Sea Grant’s coastal construction and erosion specialist, sits on the Coastal Resources Commission’s science panel. In 2012, state agencies were notoriously ordered to ignore a report from the panel predicting 39 inches of sea rise by 2100. Later, the time limit was shortened to a 30-year period.

Rogers said sea levels around Wilmington are rising at the rate of about a nickel per year, while the Outer Banks’ subsidence paired with sea level rise means the ocean is rising nearly three nickels annually.

“”Now, you add up enough nickels and it’s a whole lot of money,” said Rogers, N.C. Sea Grant’s coastal construction and erosion specialist.

To address sea level rise and flooding, the group Carey coordinated suggested steps to preserve wetlands and floodplains, natural features that can capture and slow water. The group also discussed offering incentives to leave land undeveloped.

Whitehead, the state’s resiliency officer, discussed a potential shift to thinking about rivers on a watershed basis. When she asked the audience how many people knew where rainwater went once it fell on their homes, only a few hands went up.

“We need to start thinking about how watersheds work in this state,” Whitehead said. “Water that falls — whether it’s in the Triad, the Triangle or Charlotte — travels down these watersheds.

“What runs off here becomes somebody else’s flood.”

This story was produced with financial support from Report for America/GroundTruth Project, the North Carolina Community Foundation and the North Carolina Local News Lab Fund. The News & Observer maintains full editorial control of the work.

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