Ned Barnett

Inaction magnified Hurricane Matthew’s impact

Residents walk down flooded streets after Hurricane Matthew caused downed trees, power outages, a municipal water outage and widespread flooding along the Lumber River in Lumberton.
Residents walk down flooded streets after Hurricane Matthew caused downed trees, power outages, a municipal water outage and widespread flooding along the Lumber River in Lumberton. tlong@newsobserver.com

Gov. Pat McCrory and his fellow Republicans in the General Assembly congratulated themselves for their frugality and foresight in building the state’s “rainy day fund” to $1.6 billion. And after Hurricane Matthew brought a colossal rainy day, it’s fortunate there is money on hand to respond.

But that rainy day fund’s brimming balance hardly compensates for the severe deficit in the state’s everyday funds and the leadership’s lack of environmental stewardship. Tax cuts that favor big corporations and the wealthy combined with austerity budgets and an obsession with cutting environmental regulations have left the state’s infrastructure and people more vulnerable to storm damage.

That shortfall was exposed by Hurricane Matthew’s flooding of eastern North Carolina. The state’s neglect of infrastructure and regulation exacerbated the disaster and will increase the cost of recovery. Despite the lessons taught in 1999 by the flooding of Hurricane Floyd, this governor and legislature are not committed to the funding and regulations needed to control flood waters and protect water quality from flood-related pollution.

Consider the legislature’s decision to suspend adoption of the rules that protect the water quality of the Jordan Lake and Falls Lake reservoirs that serve the Triangle. Those rules call for upgraded waste treatment plants and require natural buffer areas along rivers and streams to limit and filter runoff going into waterways. While the rules are aimed at protecting water quality, they have the secondary effect of controlling flood waters.

Republican lawmakers suspended the rules claiming they are ineffective and impose too great a cost on developers and municipalities upstream from the reservoirs. But what has been the cost of suspending those rules to communities downstream that saw the Neuse and Cape Fear rivers crest higher than they would have with the rules in place?

Meanwhile, the legislature has mandated that no state rule can exceed the requirements of federal environmental rules and no local requirement can exceed state standards. Needless to say, there’s no hope of getting from this legislature what North Carolina really needs – comprehensive, statewide flood-control regulations. At the same time, state policies are making it easier for developers to build projects with impervious surfaces that feed flooding.

Robin Smith, a Chapel Hill lawyer and environmental consultant who served for 12 years as assistant secretary for environment at the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (now the Department of Environmental Quality), said the state has made “significant cuts in water quality programs” even as the risk of pollution and flooding has increased.

“Clearly, one of the causes of increased flooding is increased development,” she said.

When the floods come in the east, the environmental damage is compounded by an unfortunate concentration of industrial farms and plants that raise and process hogs and poultry. Fourteen hog waste lagoons were flooded during Hurricane Matthew, according the NC Pork Council. The storm killed nearly 3,000 hogs and 2 million chickens and turkeys.

Those numbers are low given the volume of livestock – North Carolina has 9 million hogs and 1 billion chickens in production, most of them in the eastern part of the state – but the flooded lagoons and piles of carcasses show that these operations shouldn’t have been allowed to grow so large in areas vulnerable to floods.

Frank Holleman, an attorney with Southern Environmental Law Center who has pushed to clean up Duke Energy’s coal ash ponds, said industrial waste shouldn’t be exposed to flooding. “You shouldn’t be storing any kind of dangerous waste in a flood plain. The whole idea of storing waste is to contain it, not have it wash away into our rivers,” he said.

Floyd brought a strong state effort to better channel the next flood and prevent pollution from livestock waste and flooded waste treatment plants. But there’s no sense that the governor or Republican lawmakers are ready to limit industrial farming or impose tougher storm water control regulations in the wake of Matthew.

Bill Holman, state director of The Conservation Fund and a former DENR secretary under Gov. Jim Hunt, said the post-Floyd response removed some farms and homes from flood plains and protected waster treatment plants. But that effort has faltered and Hurricane Matthew repeated some of Floyd’s damage.

“We kind of lost the momentum and a lot of the same (waste treatment) facilities got flooded again,” he said. “I hope in the recovery we will look again at how we can better protect those plants or can move some of them because this is going to happen again.”

McCrory has formed a committee to respond to the hurricane, but the focus is more on mopping up than prevention.

Hurricane Matthew was an unavoidable act of nature. But its consequences have been made worse by the deliberate inaction of the legislature.

Barnett: 919-829-4512, nbarnett@newsobserver.com

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