Politics & Government

More big hurricanes are coming, and North Carolina needs to prepare, a new report says

Hurricanes are getting worse, but residents, businesses and governments aren’t doing enough to avoid repeated losses from future floods, according to a new report.

Zurich North America, a risk management and insurance company, the Zurich Flood Resilience Alliance, and ISET-International, a policy group that does research on climate change and disaster risk, released the report Tuesday. It says “huge, wet, slow” storms — Hurricanes Floyd, Matthew, Harvey and Florence are examples — are strengthened by climate change and becoming more frequent.

“There is reason to believe that, at least for the foreseeable future, damages from storms such as Florence may get worse,” the report says.

State and local governments should learn from these storms as they make decisions about where to build and how to build critical structures such as roads, the report said.

Hurricane Florence made landfall in North Carolina in September 2018 and its four-day rainfall that in one town reached nearly 36 inches, breaking a record.

More than 40 deaths in North Carolina were attributed to Hurricane Florence. The state estimated that the storm caused nearly $17 billion in damage and that private insurance would cover $4.8 billion in losses, The News & Observer reported last October.

Flooding and downed trees closed about 1,600 state roads, including sections of Interstate 95 and Interstate 40.

Roads aren’t built to remain passable in severe storm flooding, the Zurich report said. “Across the United States, transportation routes not built for the kinds of storms that are now occurring are increasingly flooding during storms,” the report said. “The roads are not built high enough or with enough space for water to flow around and under them.”

The report released Tuesday said the state is not moving quickly enough to curb pollution risks from flooded hog lagoons, poultry farms, and coal ash pits. It suggested the state may have to work with smaller communities that have wastewater plants that spill sewage in heavy storms, but cannot afford to upgrade or move them.

Gov. Roy Cooper’s proposal for a construction bond would include $800 million for water and sewer projects.

Earlier this month, the state Department of Environmental Quality ordered Duke Energy to dig out the coal ash from the six ponds that remain in the state. New rules the DEQ issued for large hog farms require managing lagoons in ways that account for more intense storms with heavy rainfall.

Poorer communities are hit harder by floods, the report said. They are usually closer to landfills, hazardous waste sites, or other sources of pollution. They cannot afford to rebuild rapidly, and when hurricanes hit during election season, they may be living away from home and face more obstacles to voting.

People continue to buy beach properties that are threatened by erosion. Beach nourishment, or taking sand from the ocean floor and pumping it onto beaches, is meant to compensate for eroding beaches. Beach nourishment projects are eligible for federal disaster aid, a policy that encourages building in high-risk areas, the report said.

“As long as taxpayers subsidize coastal fortification and maintenance, there is little incentive to retreat from the coast as risk increases,” the report said.

The report suggested North Carolina learn from places such as Miami, Norfolk, Va., and Charleston, S.C., which are better prepared for sea-level rise.

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Lynn Bonner has worked at The News & Observer since 1994, and has written about the state legislature and politics since 1999. Contact her at lbonner@newsobserver.com or (919) 829-4821.