After the second storm, after Hurricane Florence, everything was different.
I heard that over and over again, from people in shelters who had lost everything again to the people who run everything.
It is all different now—something is happening to our climate.
The human tendency to use past storms as markers helps us process disasters. But then you have something that doesn’t fit the pattern, doesn’t work within the reality you’ve constructed, and the only way to process it is to change.
In 2015, I interviewed the noted Penn State climate scientist Michael Mann at a conference on the coast. He said that, at some point, North Carolina would face a reckoning with climate change, that a certain amount of sea-level rise and more powerful and frequent storms were already baked in.
That reckoning began here after Hurricane Florence caused widespread destruction throughout most of eastern North Carolina in 2018. The storm crawled across the state, dropping trillions of gallons of water, flooding places that had never before flooded while inundating many of the same areas deluged during Hurricane Matthew less than two years before.
North Carolinians emerged from the second storm with an understanding that we’ve entered an era of frequent, more intense storms. Even die-hard climate change deniers acknowledged that the climate is changing.
This month, Hurricane Dorian drilled that home.
That understanding has triggered a change in the direction of disaster strategies at the local, state, and federal levels from reactive to proactive, and from a storm-by-storm approach to recovery to new infrastructure charged with managing multiple storms and overlapping recoveries.
There are persistent myths about North Carolina and climate change, and they seem to always pop up at the worst possible time.
One of them is that the state is anti-science, lingering fallout from the sea-level-rise debacle in 2012, in which legislators pushed through a bill that limited the use of climate science in determining sea-level-rise rates. The backstory was that new rates set by a state science panel drew the ire of homebuilders and developers worried that the rates would limit planning.
This story still comes up with irritating regularity every time a storm passes through, even though no one ever took that law seriously, except for the state board that had to produce a new sea-level-rise report. It produced a report that only looked out thirty years, while local planners and state regulators went about their business of thinking a little further ahead.
In the General Assembly, meanwhile, the sea-level-rise backlash and a state energy policy that cleared the way for fracking and offshore drilling made it almost impossible to even discuss climate change. For several years, you rarely heard it mentioned, and when it was, it was often met with snark or a both-sides retort. Covering the legislature, I saw a renowned soil scientist get grilled in a committee hearing after he made an offhand remark about climate change during a presentation on sedimentation mapping.
Through the 2016 election, the climate change discussion and the sea-level-rise issues were intertwined and heavily politicized—one way for Republicans to show how anti-Obama they were.
Climate change and what to do about it became a key part of the 2016 race for governor. Democrat Roy Cooper hammered at then-governor Pat McCrory’s advocacy of offshore drilling and the legislature’s authorization of fracking. Since his election, Cooper has continued to fight offshore drilling, and last year issued an executive order committing state agencies and departments to steep carbon reductions. He also required that climate impacts be considered in all rules and regulations.
Just before the election, Hurricane Matthew drenched a huge swath of eastern North Carolina, causing the worst flooding since Hurricane Floyd in 1992. Matthew was a wet, slow-moving storm. In its aftermath, there was a noticeable shift in the discussion of how to recover from the floods, which had exposed flaws in disaster response and the lack of institutional knowledge about how to handle federal housing disaster grants.
Twenty-three months later, when Hurricane Florence rolled through, eastern North Carolina was still dotted with blue tarps, empty storefronts, and tens of thousands of displaced people living in hotels or with relatives or in the one room of their place they had made livable while they rebuilt the rest.
The storms overlapped, dealing repeat devastations to southeastern border counties. But Florence also flooded large areas of Robeson, Scotland, and Columbus Counties that no one could recall flooding before. Much of New Bern, where the Neuse River narrows, saw record floods that forced an evacuation of thousands of residents to mega-shelters in the Triangle.
The floods from Matthew and Florence were a vivid reminder that eastern North Carolina’s greatest risk is not along its coastline, but along its complex network of rivers and sounds where the majority of people living in neighborhoods threatened by flooding are the most financially and socially vulnerable.
In three short years, this state has become an example of climate change–driven displacement and economic ruin. Above all, we are seeing a housing crisis. Even before the storms, eastern North Carolina faced a massive deficit in affordable housing.
The region had a deficit of about 190,000 units before the storm; now it’s 300,000 and counting. All over storm-damaged areas, housing costs are going up, while the number of rental units is going down.
Late last year, in a rare moment of consensus between Cooper and the General Assembly, a post-hurricane recovery bill set up a new state agency, the Office of Recovery & Resilience, which could play a significant role in addressing this need. The office will eventually manage more than $1 billion in HUD disaster recovery funding from Matthew, Florence, and Michael, a powerful storm that dissipated as it moved over the Carolinas last October.
The aim of the forty-five-member office, known as NCORR, is to use as much of that funding as possible to move people out of harm’s way ahead of future storms. This summer, the office announced grants to start two new affordable housing projects in Goldsboro and Fayetteville.
Even as the housing challenge inland shapes up as the hardest fix, what’s happening to the coast and the rising vulnerabilities there can’t be ignored. The damage just experienced in Ocracoke is going to have a tremendous economic impact on Hyde County, one of the state’s poorest counties, which relies on the island for about a third of its property tax revenue and almost all of its occupancy taxes. Last year, damage to rentals on Topsail Island had a major impact on Pender County. This year, officials in Surf City had to scramble to replace a berm destroyed during Florence to protect its downtown.
The reckoning is not over by any means. New construction continues unabated on the coast, while inland communities struggle to find enough housing for displaced people. State officials trying to move residents and sometimes whole communities out of floodplains face resistance from residents who are not ready to give up longtime ties and have difficulty finding housing on high ground.
Meanwhile, the storms keep coming. What’s playing out is exactly what the deniers scoffed at a few years ago.
This is climate change, not in theory, but in real time.
Comment on this story at firstname.lastname@example.org. Kirk Ross is the capital bureau chief for Carolina Public Press, a state government reporter for Coastal Review Online, and a correspondent for The Washington Post.
Programming note: This week, the INDY is participating in Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets ahead of the United Nations Climate Summit, which begins on September 23.