After Hurricane Florence and Tropical Storm Michael left their trails of death and destruction across North Carolina, it’s time to clean up, repair, help those in need and move forward. But it also should be time to think about what environmental lessons these powerful storms leave behind. Maybe we can be smarter as we face the future.
One thing should be clear: When people in North Carolina, especially legislators and government officials, wrestle with issues such as how to handle hog waste and coal ash, how much development to allow on beaches and in other vulnerable areas and whether to promote the use of cleaner energy, the debates aren’t just abstract discussions about politics, money or being business friendly. They can also be about life and death and whether our way of doing things is sustainable.
It’s folly to ignore solid science about climate change when warming is already having noticeable effects, as the recent report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change made more clear than ever. Among its dire projections, we can expect more frequent major hurricanes that, like Florence, are difficult to predict and extremely wet.
It’s folly, in other words, to continue the policies adopted in 2012, when the legislature passed a law ordering state and local agencies to disregard scientific models showing expected sea-level rise when setting coastal development policies. As a result, coastal development has boomed.
North Carolina could help slow climate change by adopting progressive policies such as encouraging clean cars and alternative power sources. The state also can be smarter about planning for the probability of major storms and flooding.
The full extent of the environmental damage from Florence will be discovered as we see how badly the state’s rivers, sounds and ground water have been polluted. Once again, despite warnings and calls for reform, lagoons on industrial farms flooded or failed, releasing hog wastes. Industrial chicken farms also flooded.
Then there’s coal ash, and the slow pace at which Duke Energy and the state are moving to close storage ponds, even after the massive spill in 2014 from an old Duke plant into the Dan River at Eden. Hurricane Matthew two years ago sent toxins from a coal-ash pond near Goldsboro into the Neuse River. Florence flooded a coal-ash pond near Wilmington, and environmental groups are questioning state regulators’ assessments of the damage.
People across the state are dealing with flooding from Florence’s massive rainfall, as much as 15 inches as far inland as Fayetteville and Goldsboro. Another hard lesson is that floodplain maps are outdated. Part of the problem is development — as open land is paved for development, more water runs off rather than soaking into the ground. Combine that with more frequent and wetter storms, and you can expect flooding.
Many homes flooded by Florence did not have flood insurance. People who live in recognized floodplains are usually required to buy flood insurance, but many other people can and probably should.
One of the most disturbing aspects of all this is that North Carolina has failed to learn lessons in the past. Hurricane Floyd stalled and rained over eastern North Carolina for days, flooding areas not in floodplains and sending millions of gallons of toxic hog waste, plus carcasses, into rivers. That was 19 years ago.
Even if we do everything possible in North Carolina, it might not be enough. Climate change is a global problem that requires a global response. Unfortunately, the current administration, by seeking to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement and weakening environmental regulations, seems determined to make matters worse.
But we’ve still got to do everything we can, including voting for candidates who take the problem seriously.
Florence won’t be the last destructive hurricane to hit the state. We need to be smarter before the next time.