Hurricane Florence: How ready is North Carolina for a weather disaster?

From Gov. Roy Cooper to N.C. lawmakers to local leaders, officials in North Carolina have done a thorough and admirable job of mobilizing response to the impending impact of Hurricane Florence.

That’s the easy part.

What’s harder is making decisions over time that equip cities and counties to better handle the challenges that weather disasters can bring. In some cases, lawmakers and other officials have done the opposite, and with Florence now at the door, North Carolinians are as uncomfortable as a student who’s unprepared for the exam coming down the row.

On the North Carolina coast, Florence is poised to deliver high winds, sustained rain and a storm surge that will severely threaten homes and other development. Such storms are far from a surprise, as a warming climate continues to deliver fiercer storms to the U.S. coast. But instead of preparing for that inevitability — and the rising sea levels that climate change also has brought — N.C. lawmakers instead passed a 2012 law that told state and local agencies to ignore evidence of sea-level rise when they developed coastal building policies. Development has continued to boom.

A bit further inland, Florence might drop 30 inches of rain on many of the state’s 2,300 hog farms and lagoons that hold waste for millions of pigs. Those lagoons are generally designed to withstand about 25 inches of rain or less, and we already know what can happen when a storm hits. During Hurricane Matthew in 2016, waters saturated the low-lying floodplains of eastern N.C. and flooded more than a dozen lagoons, killing more than 2,800 hogs and almost 2 million chickens and turkeys.

The same thing happened at hog farms after Hurricane Floyd in 1999, prompting the state to launch a program to relocate or close some of the swine farms. But those efforts largely stalled by 2016, and the farms continue to pose an environmental threat to nearby waterways.

In North Carolina’s cities, leaders fretted this week about flooding that Florence might spawn, including in Charlotte, where city officials encouraged residents to keep their neighborhood storm drains free of debris that might block the flow of stormwater. But those cities are more vulnerable to flooding in part because a sustained rush of development has increased land surface impervious to water.

In Charlotte, stormwater management officials have made some headway in thoughtfully moving runoff away from impervious surfaces and sidestepping the consequences of normal rainfall. But as our cities continue to develop, and as Florence may remind us soon, officials need to more proactively channel — or even reuse — water differently. Some cities are already exploring such innovations, replacing concrete with wetlands and permeable materials that better absorb water. In China, cities are creating hundreds of thousands of feet of rooftop gardens that capture and reuse water before it can reach the ground.

We’re encouraged that Florence appeared to be weakening at our state’s doorstep, and we hope the storm is not the monster forecasters warned it might be. But crossing your fingers is not a good strategy in dealing with the inevitability of weather disasters. Our state and our cities can do better should do better.

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