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In Florence’s wake, we take stock and begin rebuilding

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We have seen the worst of nature and the best of mankind. We have seen actions that make “rising to the occasion” a breathtaking understatement. And we have seen the terrible power of an intense storm unleashed across our own region and more than half of our state. There may not be enough awe in the universe to react appropriately.

We saw volunteers arrive from across the country, like the Nebraska urban search and rescue team that helped evacuate some threatened nursing homes, or the California swift-water rescue team that helped save lives in Sampson County. The Coast Guard, far from its usual saltwater workplace, was piloting small boats through the flooding in Robeson County, ferrying stranded residents to safety. Utility crews from across the country are turning our lights back on. National Guard troops are assisting in rescues. Red Cross and other responders from across the country are cooking up food and otherwise taking care of people at dozens of shelters across this region.

City and county employees are getting little sleep as they respond to the storm’s emergencies, run shelters, coordinate relief efforts and make sure the public is fully informed about the storm problems out there. They are joined by state officials and Fort Bragg soldiers. Police and firefighters are working long shifts in the most miserable possible weather. Grocery store employees are working feverishly to keep food on the shelves. And as we always see in storms large and small, neighbors are helping neighbors in as many ways as we can imagine.

It is all an extraordinary testimonial to the goodness that we humans can summon under stress.

Even before the floodwaters recede, the pulse-taking has begun. Relief workers are streaming into the area. And so are our political leaders, including members of Congress, the governor and state and local policymakers. The president may visit. What they are seeing, from here to the coast, is an enormous repair project that will take years to complete — even as recovery from Hurricane Matthew, which hit nearly two years ago, has yet to be completed. We fear many of those repairs may be undone by Florence. The bottom line, once it’s established, is likely to total billions of dollars that will come from private insurance and the treasuries of local, state and federal government.

We hope the Federal Emergency Management Agency is ready for the new challenge. The disaster assistance branch of federal government has been stretched beyond thin by a horrific series of hurricanes in the eastern half of the country and years of wildfires in the western half. Likewise the state disaster relief operation has been hard pressed to keep up with the needs arising from 2016’s Hurricane Matthew, and now its staff must add the burden of Florence, which appears to be at least as devastating.

As all these agencies and policymakers converge on this region, their first mission will be damage assessment. But we hope they keep alert as well to the clear policy issues that will need to be addressed in Florence’s wake. From the White House to City Hall, there needs to be serious reflection on the state of our readiness for this new direction in tropical weather. Florence is the second “flood of the millennium” in two years, and the third in less than two decades (Hurricane Floyd in 1999 was the first). It’s time to take science seriously and stop blowing it off as irrelevant. We are entering a new normal in which tropical storms have greater intensity and cause greater flooding than we have seen in our lifetimes. And those storms are coming on top of already-rising seas that now bring routine flooding to many coastal areas.

We have some big policy questions to answer and some big damage-prevention projects to begin.

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