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Past time to storm proof vulnerable areas

Tropical Weather North Carolina-2

A 40-foot yacht lies in the yard of a storm-damaged home on East Front Street in New Bern, N.C., Saturday, Sept. 15, 2018. The boat washed up with storm surge and debris from Hurricane Florence. (Gray Whitley/Sun Journal via AP)

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Monday, May 6, 2019

As Hurricane Matthew’s floodwaters receded and we began cleaning up the massive mess, it became apparent that we had some difficult challenges ahead. A changing climate was making hurricanes bigger, slower, wetter. We saw the need to prepare for the kind of flooding we encountered. A lot of scientists told us that, and at least some of our political leaders agreed.

Then, just two years later, along came Hurricane Florence, putting a big, red exclamation point on that reality. Gov. Roy Cooper uses the phrase “new normal” a lot as he talks about what the two hurricanes did to this state, and what we need to do to prepare for similar future storms. It’s a huge task. We need to make hard decisions about where development is OK and where it isn’t — including tough calls on who can rebuild after a big flood and who will have to move to higher ground. We need to look at roads, bridges, power grids and all the other infrastructure in flood-prone areas and begin to raise, harden or move them. We’re talking about billions — probably hundreds of billions of dollars in construction spending.

The alternative is spending many billions every time a big hurricane like Matthew or Florence gives us another slap.

But so far, all the talk has mostly been just that — lots of talk and not much action. If another big hurricane swamps us this year or next, the toll is likely to be the same as the last one — or maybe worse.

With the 2019 hurricane season just a month away, the big risk-management and insurance company, Zurich North America, has issued a report that says state leaders aren’t doing enough to mitigate risks. It urged state leaders to act promptly to better storm-proof our vulnerable areas. “Despite the double hit of Matthew and then Florence, along with an extremely active though not directly damaging to North Carolina hurricane season of 2017, people and businesses are missing an opportunity to improve their resilience,” Paul Lavelle, the insurer’s chief claims officer, said. “The trends are clear — natural hazards are getting worse. Now is a key window of opportunity with the recovery still ongoing in many communities to take action and reduce future risk.”

In North Carolina and in the rest of the country as well, the report says, roads aren’t built high enough or with enough space for flood water to flow around or under them. It also warns that the state hasn’t moved quickly enough to stop the pollution from flooded sewage-treatment plants, hog lagoons, poultry farms and coal-ash pits. In many cases, the report says, state help will be needed because local government doesn’t have the financial resources to make improvements.

“Communities can no longer afford business as usual, quite literally,” Lavelle said. “The growing economic and human cost of these events requires that we not only change how we respond, but also do so far more quickly than we have in the past.”

But that’s not what we’re seeing, although Cooper has proposed a state construction bond project that would include spending $800 million on water and sewer projects. But as the report also points out, the state has done nothing to discourage building in high-risk areas and taxpayers continue to subsidize projects like the restoration of eroding beaches that encourage even more development in areas increasingly threatened by rising sea levels even in normal conditions, let alone during hurricanes.

For reference, the report suggests, state officials might want to consider what other coastal communities are doing to flood-proof themselves. Some of the smart ones include Norfolk, Virginia, Charleston, South Carolina, and Miami, Florida.

We hope our leaders in Raleigh are paying attention to what Zurich North America has found. Ignoring the company’s advice could be a fiscal nightmare.

The Fayetteville Observer

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