Flood Buyouts Are Hot Topics


Flood Buyouts Are Hot Topics

By: Adam M. Matheny

At a Recent N&O Hurricane Forum, Climate Change, and Flood Buyouts

Shortly after Hurricane Dorian passed brushed the North Carolina Coast, The News & Observer hosted a group of experts to discuss what can be done to prevent the damage caused by this storm.

Erin Carey, N.C. Sierra Club’s coastal conservation coordinator was asked by N.C. Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to create a set of coastal resiliency policy suggestions intended to help the DEQ shape their Risk Assessment and Resiliency Plan.

Carey, along with a group of 11 people put together 13 suggestions to help with this enormous problem. ” There’s no definition, everybody thinks it’s something different, and if we don’t figure out a way to talk to each other, cooperate with each other and speak the same language, then we’re not going to make the progress that’s required to beat back this crisis,” said Carey.

Hurricane Matthew (2016), Hurricane Florence (2018), and most recently Hurricane Dorian all caused severe flooding and damage. This has led the agency to look further into buying out those properties in hurricane-prone areas. It has also led to possible changes in water management strategy across N.C.

Lower Income Homes Significantly Impacted by Severe Weather

University of North Carolina history professor, Luis Perez emphasized how important it is to keep the impact of such a disaster on residents in the lower-income bracket. He said,” Hurricanes make history, and hurricanes reveal the limits and limitations of human agency.” His thoughts are that property damage that is irrevocable tends to happen to those of modest income.

Many of the areas, such as Burgaw, Lumberton, and Seven Springs, N.C., were struggling economically when they were flooded by Florence and Matthew. At the meeting, N.C Office of Recovery and Resiliency’s (NCORR) chief resilience officer, Jessica Whitehead urged those in attendance to stop thinking about hurricane damage in terms of just coastal areas. She went on to say that the damage frequently impacts poorer communities located along the rivers throughout the state.

Whitehead went on to say that although buying out homes in high-risk areas should be part of the solution, the cost is likely to be substantial and that continuing to toss this suggestion out fails to explain how much doing so will cost the state. The NCORR expects there to be more buyouts than they have funding for. According to a report published in a 2015 News & Observer, WRAL’s former chief meteorologist, and a former climate change denier, Greg Fishel, said that once he began to study the science involved in determining the effects of humans on climate change, he found that we are in fact contributing to the problem.

Climate Change Responsible for Storms with More Rain

Fishel found after studying the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) database, that storms dropping in excess of five inches of rain are on the increase. For example, in 2010 Wilmington had 10 severe rain events and in 2018 measured 100 inches of rain. Some parts of the city endured 30 inches of rain.

Fishel went on to say that it’s not that hurricanes are getting stronger in terms of wind speed, but they are dumping significantly more rain. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, professor of marine and environmental sciences, Hans Pearl and a team published a paper in “Nature” that showed N.C., is likely to see wetter storms that are over a 120-year record. Pearl’s concern is that there isn’t enough time for the water quality to return to normal between these storms. For example, in 1999, following Hurricane Floyd, Pamlico Sound took almost three years to return to normal levels of salinity.

His recommendations:

  • Adding buffers around urban areas to help slow down the runoff caused by such storms.
  • Preventing farmers from applying fertilizers to their crops during peak hurricane season.
  • Putting “no-till” practices in agriculture.
  • Cutting down on greenhouse emissions by using public transportation, cycling, or walking rather than driving.

The Rising Seas

In 2012, many state agencies were told to ignore a report from the Coastal Resources Commission that predicted seas would rise by as much as 39 inches by 2100. Recently this date was reduced to within 30 years. N.C. Sea Grant’s coastal construction and erosion specialist, Spencer Rogers says that sea levels around the Wilmington area are raising by approximately “one nickel per year.” While on the Outer Banks the rate is more like three nickels per year.

Carey’s group suggested a number of steps that can be taken to help preserve the floodplains, wetlands, and natural features that work to capture the excess water and slow it down. They also talked about the possibility of providing incentives to convince builders to leave these areas undeveloped.

Whitehead asked those in the audience if they knew where the rain water went after it hits the ground, very few raised their hands. Whitehead had this to say, ” We need to start thinking about how watersheds work in this state, Water that falls — whether it’s in the Triad, the Triangle or Charlotte — travels down these watersheds. What runs off here becomes somebody else’s flood.”

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