Did N.C. legislation contribute to Hurricane Florence's damage? Professor says it may have played a role

Thousands of residents suffered severe loss when Hurricane Florence swept the coastlines of the Carolinas, but the damage was not entirely due to natural hazard—human imprudence may also be responsible.

A 2010 state commission report revealed disturbing projections for sea level rise by as much as 39 inches by 2100. Rather than spurring action, the alarming findings prompted backlash from N.C. legislators, who responded by creating the controversial 2012 House Bill 819, which banned state and local agencies from basing their coastal policies on modern scientific models, favoring supplemental historical data instead. The law mandates the Coastal Resources Commission to restrict its study of sea-level rises to a scope of 30 years. 

Elizabeth Albright, assistant professor of the practice of environmental sciences and policy, said it is unclear how the state legislation has added to the burden of the victims because of the absence of counterfactual data. 

“It's too early to fully and adequately analyze the impact of legislation, as the storm effects are still playing out over much of the coastal plain...and the counterfactual is hard to tell," she said.

Albright added that House Bill 819 was not the primary cause of the damage in coastal North Carolina, but that it may have still played a role. 

“I do not see House Bill 819 as the central policy failure of Florence, but rather the inability to address social inequities, environmental hazards, and to adequately recover from Matthew in a more resilient manner as the core failures of the [North Carolina General Assembly] and administration,” she explained. 

The law was passed in an effort to protect the economic interests of property owners on the coastline. However, this bill most likely endangered the constituencies it had intended to safeguard, as development along the coastline was allowed to continue with little consideration of rising sea levels and increasingly dramatic weather events due to climate change. 

Deborah Ross, former representative in the North Carolina House of Representatives, said in an interview with Reuters that by passing the law, the legislators ignored the impending danger and actually put the property owners at risk. 

"By putting our heads in the sand literally, we are not helping property owners. We are hurting them. We are not giving them information they might need to protect their property," she said. "Ignorance is not bliss. It’s dangerous.”

Eight hurricanes have struck North Carolina since 2012, including Hurricane Arthur in 2014, Joaquin in 2015, Hermine in 2016, Matthew in 2016, Harvey in 2017, Irma in 2017, Maria in 2017, and now Florence.

It has been two weeks since Hurricane Florence caused landfall in the Southeast. Many communities in North and South Carolina are still unable to return to their homes. 

So far, 36 people have died as a direct or indirect result of the storm. Rivers swollen with rain continue to cause historic flooding and threaten homes, industry and infrastructure. Property damage from Hurricane Florence is estimated at $17 billion to $22 billion. 

In addition, North Carolina agriculture has lost approximately $1.1 billion in livestock loss and crop damage.

The flooding of coal ash is another concern. Coal ash is a byproduct of coal burning and can contain harmful heavy metals, such as mercury and arsenic. Millions of tons of the ash are stored in basins across the state. 

Two Duke Energy plants with on-site coal ash storage–its Brunswick plant and its L.V. Sutton plant in Wilmington–saw significant flooding during and after the hurricane.

An unknown amount of coal ash has been released from the two sites and funneled into the rivers. Nearly 40 hog lagoons have also been flooded, releasing manure into floodwaters and potentially contaminating potable water sources across North Carolina. 

Although House Bill 819 may not have been as impactful as feared, the history of lax legislation and enforcement in feedlot operations in the floodplain “may have had the most visceral and immediate impact on the health of the waters of the state,” Albright noted, as the flooding of these areas has caused nutrient and bacterial pollution. 

Furthermore, according to Albright, the 2016 Disaster Recovery Act—designed to help North Carolina residents rebuild after the devastating Hurricane Harvey—was inadequate in its support of the most affected communities in the Southeast. 

“Many of these same communities were tragically—although unsurprisingly— affected again in Hurricane Florence,” she added. 

Albright noted that it is still too early to take away major lessons from Florence.

“Everyone’s awareness is at its peak now, but in a week or month, it will be much less so, unless you were directly impacted.” Albright said. 

It is important to note that the people who were most affected by the flood often times have the least power to effect change, she added.  

“Just because lots of people are now up in arms about the death of millions of chickens and thousands of pigs on our floodplains, doesn’t mean in a year from now that our regulations will have changed,” she said. 


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