They’ve been described as 100- or even 500-year storms, to indicate that they’re not supposed to happen more than once in a lifetime. And yet hurricanes Floyd, Matthew and now Florence all brought once inconceivable flooding to Eastern North Carolina three times in less than 20 years.
And it would be smart to assume it will happen again as we rebuild and build new roads, bridges, water systems, sewage treatment plants and other infrastructure, according to a group of North Carolina’s cultural, political and business leaders.
Several cited the expected effects of climate change in producing more frequent powerful storms, while others said it’s simply better to be safe than sorry. But others noted that spending on smarter roads and utilities will have other benefits, too, such as making communities and the state more attractive to companies and improving the lives of residents.
“Better connectivity between rural and urban centers, more reliable power grids, and other infrastructure developments provide a stable foundation for growth and entrepreneurship,” wrote Catherine Lawson, a Raleigh attorney who started the #meAT14 social media campaign. “Those benefits are worth pursuing even in the unlikely event that weather patterns return to a less-destructive average.”
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Lawson is one of the NC Influencers, a group of 60 leaders convened by The News & Observer, The Charlotte Observer and The Herald-Sun to answer questions about issues facing the state. In past surveys, they have addressed such issues as health care, Confederate monuments, education, voter ID, gerrymandering and climate change.
Last week, 38 responded to questions about roads, utilities and other infrastructure in the wake of Hurricane Florence, which killed 40 people in North Carolina and did billions of dollars in damage. When the remnants of Hurricane Michael hit the state on Thursday, 75 state roads in North Carolina were still closed and being repaired because of Florence.
Several of the Influencers suggested steps North Carolina should be taking to make communities less vulnerable to storms in the future, such as leaving flood plains undeveloped and reducing the creation of impervious asphalt surfaces that send more rain water downstream rather than allow it to sink into the ground. Several mentioned burying power and other utility lines underground to make them less vulnerable to wind and falling trees.
Former N.C. Gov. Mike Easley said replacing the aging and damaged utility systems in small towns with better regional ones will help those areas attract industry and jobs.
“The infrastructure in rural towns is weak and out of date. Water, sewer, drainage, roads and bridges failed to perform” during Florence, wrote Easley, a Democrat who was the state’s attorney general during Hurricane Floyd in 1999 and governor from 2001 to 2009. “Municipal waste was worse than agricultural.”
Raleigh chef, restaurateur and philanthropist Ashley Christensen wrote that building public infrastructure should be done with several goals in mind, “including providing better standards of care and accessibility to the rural areas of the state with populations that are under-served and under-protected. These infrastructure upgrades are just as much about addressing income inequality and protecting our most vulnerable citizens as they are about emergency preparedness.”
Those who said we should prioritize said basic infrastructure should come first.
“The priority should be existing roads and bridges maintenance, so as to ensure safety and preservation of our present transportation systems,” wrote Patricia Timmons-Goodson, a retired state Supreme Court justice and chair of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. “This would mean that our businesses and the economic opportunities that rely on transportation of goods may continue.”
But most said it wasn’t a choice between rebuilding rural economies such as Eastern North Carolina and improving roads and transit systems in urban areas like the Triangle. All are needed, said Webb Hubbell, an author and former associate U.S. Attorney General under President Bill Clinton.
“Good roads and mass transit have been proven to support growth and increases in the economy,” Hubbell wrote. “They should all become a priority.”
If all the Influencers agree infrastructure is important to improving the economy and the lives of North Carolina residents, there is no strong consensus among them about how to pay for it. The suggestions included higher income and fuel taxes, fees and tolls, borrowing, seeking more federal funds, establishing new partnerships with the private sector and tapping the state’s “rainy day fund,” which the General Assembly has built to about $2 billion.
“Modernizing North Carolina’s infrastructure is going to require federal, state, local, and private investment,” Lawson wrote. “Policymakers and business leaders should explore multiple ways to pay for different projects and not assume that there’s a single correct approach.”
One area where there was more consensus was on the question of whether candidates for office this year were focusing on “policy solutions” to the state’s problems. More than half who responded last week thought candidates were doing so “slightly” or “not at all,” while only eight thought they were “fairly well.”
Charlotte Observer staff writer Nancy Webb contributed to this report.