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The people of North Carolina need to answer two big questions:
1. Do we think that experiencing three major-flood-producing hurricanes in 20 years is a “new normal”?
2. If yes, based on what we’ve seen since 1999, should we try to mitigate potential destruction and loss of life?
Folks near the coast have always lived with the threat of hurricanes. Certain steps were taken to reduce the impact should one strike. But we felt that the odds were on our side, and that the risk was manageable.
Since Hazel in 1954, each hurricane season — for the most part — would end up dealing us a good hand. Sure, there were a few times we didn’t win, but our losses were minimal. The odds were working nicely in our favor.
Then we started drawing bad cards — specifically Fran, Floyd, Matthew and Florence. We did have a few aces up our sleeves — some beefed-up building codes; better storm forecasting, which allowed for better and earlier preparation; and counties and municipalities that had become more proactive in both hurricane preparation and response.
But those trump cards were not enough. We’ve been losing badly.
Try as we might, we can’t predict the future. But we still plan for it, making at least an educated guess and weighing risks. For a while now, scientists have warned that stronger, wetter and slower-moving hurricanes would be more common and cause more flooding. Plenty of people — politicians included — have responded with a big “phooey.”
And that’s really at the heart of the first big question: Scientists say our odds are steadily worsening, but the doubters aren’t buying it. They see no need to do the things that the experts say could improve our odds. They are reluctant to change where and how we build things like houses, roads and sewer systems.
So who to believe? We would suggest that we can’t move forward proactively and effectively until we answer that question.
And even if there is a consensus that our hurricane odds are worsening, that doesn’t guarantee North Carolina residents and political leaders will act. Furthermore, if there is a willingness to act to mitigate storm damage, what should we do and how will we pay for it?
These are, no doubt, big, broad questions. Answering them won’t do much beyond providing a general idea of where North Carolinians stand.
Residents and leaders may want to just keep rolling the dice, even if they think the odds are no longer on our side. Anecdotal evidence makes us think the worsening-storm theory is gaining traction. And the 2018 Hurricane Florence Recovery Act, recently passed by the General Assembly, addresses the need to go beyond storm recovery and start building storm resiliency. As we noted in this space last week, the legislation creates a state Office of Recovery and Resiliency. That’s a significant first step, we’d argue. It shows the thinking is changing.
Americans, of course, are notorious for having short memories. At some point, Florence will be out of the headlines, and life will return to normal for many people. What we do then will be a good indicator of how committed we are to developing resiliency.
Will we be more proactive, or will it soon be business as usual again, as Florence fades further into the past?
Just remember this — Matthew had not been gone even two years before Florence came calling.
That, in a nutshell, is the dilemma. How we deal with it — or even if we deal with it — is up to us.