N.C. must prepare for era of giant storms

North Carolina escaped the brunt of Hurricane Irma after the storm tracked west of earlier projections. Now the state can use its resources to help battered and flooded portions of Florida by sending utility crews, medical personnel and private donations.

While Hurricanes Irma and Harvey did not deliver a major blow to North Carolina, they did deliver a major warning. Hurricanes fueled by warmer air and ocean temperatures are getting more intense, and rising sea levels increase the level of flooding from sea water.

North Carolina, with its long coast jutting into a frequent hurricane path and its wide, low-lying coastal plain, is especially vulnerable to hurricanes and inland flooding. Now that vulnerability is rising with climate change, but preparations are not keeping pace.

Two sides of readiness

Long-term hurricane preparations take place on two sides of a storm. One is about readying; the other is about responding. Getting ready means moving homes out of flood-prone areas, improving building codes to ensure more buildings can withstand hurricane winds, limiting shoreline development, creating natural shorelines rather than seawalls and other hardened structures and improving local sewer and stormwater systems to handle huge increases in water volume.

On the side of getting ready, North Carolina is falling behind. Despite warnings about climate change and sea-level rise, the issue has not become urgent. Coastal development continues in harm’s way, water and sewer systems are too easily overwhelmed and river flooding needs to be better controlled.

The Republican-led General Assembly has focused on reducing environmental regulations, including putting limits on riparian buffers, or strips of vegetation, along streams and rivers. The buffers help control stormwater runoff and filter the pollution carried into waterways. Meanwhile, more resources should be devoted to inspecting and strengthening the more than 5,600 small dams in the state that are categorized as high-hazard because a break could lead to deaths or property damage of more than $250,000.

Fortunately, Gov. Roy Cooper is making storm readiness a priority. Last week, he announced that the state’s Water Infrastructure Authority has approved $10 million to help fund water and sewer improvements for 45 counties affected by Hurricane Matthew. The governor has also made environmental regulation a priority after four years of neglect during Gov. Pat McCrory’s administration.

Matthew needs remain

On the side of hurricane response, the state also is losing ground. Nearly a year after Hurricane Matthew flooded much of eastern North Carolina, the state still needs $500 million to for rebuilding. Much of that money is needed to buy damaged houses from owners who want to sell. A total of 2,997 homeowners in 50 affected counties are eligible and want to sell, but the state only has funding to buy about 1,000 of the homes. The state needs $92 million to help low- and moderate-income homeowners make repairs.

The response to Matthew was considerably weaker and slower than the response to Hurricane Floyd in 1999. Part of that reflects the fiscal austerity of the current legislature and part of it is the partisan gridlock in Congress coupled with the Trump administration’s slowness to focus on Matthew relief.

Flooding from Harvey and Irma will further complicate a major source of storm relief – the National Flood Insurance Program. The program is set to expire Sept. 30. If Congress does not act to extend it, no new policies can be written after the program expires. Even current claims are in limbo as the program approaches a $30 billion borrowing limit that will be exceed by claims from Harvey and Irma. The program needs to be revised for fairness and affordability, but a congressional agreement appears remote.

Tight-fisted policies at the state and federal level combined with doubts about climate change and hostility toward environmental regulations are weakening North Carolina’s preparedness for giant storms and its ability to recover from them. Harvey and Irma may have started to move those obstacles and that can’t happen soon enough. North Carolina escaped Irma, but in these times the state should be urgently preparing for the hurricanes that will come.