In October, nearly five inches of rain poured down on Raleigh, flooding homes, washing away roads, and bringing down power lines. In Holly Springs, a section of asphalt collapsed. In Raleigh, 23 people were evacuated from their homes by boat.
It was the most rain seen on October 9 (outside of 2016, during Hurricane Matthew) since 1894, almost an inch more than the previous record, according to the North Carolina State Climate Office.
Unfortunately, extreme weather isn’t unusual for the newest generation of North Carolinians, who are growing up amid the consequences of climate change. Records for Wake County’s highest temperature and greatest one-day rainfall were each set in the past decade.
“As the planet warms, a warmer atmosphere can hold more water. Our storms are just getting wetter,” says Kathie Dello, North Carolina’s official climatologist and director of the climate office. “The extremes are getting more extreme.”
The immediate consequences of extreme weather are obvious—trees fall, houses flood, and people die. But there are also more subtle effects. As cities get hit by storm after storm, water pipes and sewer systems start to break down. People are subject to continued flooding that can force them out of their homes.
Small towns in eastern North Carolina are even worse off, since they get hit harder and have less money to rebuild. Rural communities like Fair Bluff (near the South Carolina border) and Princeville (east of Rocky Mount) are on the brink of bankruptcy.
“We’ve had these hurricanes over the past five years which keep communities in constant recovery mode,” says Dello. “It only takes one storm or one hurricane to really disrupt a community or their way of life.”
Raleigh doesn’t often get hit directly by severe storms, but that doesn’t mean it’s safe from global warming, according to Dello. Flooding is a statewide problem.
In the past five years, Wake County has sustained about $188 million in property damage. Much of that damage came from Hurricane Matthew in 2016 and a series of severe thunderstorms in May 2019.
With a population of almost half a million, Raleigh has a bigger tax base than most other cities and towns in North Carolina. But like many towns across the state, Raleigh is also struggling with crumbling infrastructure. As more people move to the city, and more storms hit, more demands are put on the system.
“Our stormwater infrastructure was designed with the historical climate in mind. So when a lot of our culverts and roads were built, people weren’t thinking about climate change,” Dello says.
“Now, we’ve shifted into this place where we’re seeing wetter storms … [and] places in our communities that constantly flood, even with what we would think would be a pretty manageable storm, because the system can’t handle it anymore.”
Low-income communities of color
The people who are getting hit hardest by climate change are low-income people of color, Dello says. Historically, segregation has isolated Black communities, often in areas more prone to flooding.
Princeville, the first town in America chartered by freed slaves, is a good example, according to Dello. Like some other places along the Tar and Neuse Rivers, the community was first settled by African Americans.
Low-income neighborhoods have also historically been underserved by government officials. Installation of new water and sewer systems has lagged behind.
“Even within cities, if you think about Raleigh, there are parts of Raleigh that are more well off than others,” Dello says. “It tends to be the lower-income areas that see the most flooding.”
When it comes to chronic flooding, it might seem like there are only two options: retreat or rebuild. But North Carolina and federal officials are also exploring a third option: resiliency.
The state budget passed two weeks ago includes some $400 million for “flood mitigation and resiliency,” meaning ways to minimize the damage to infrastructure and risk to residents. The money will go toward a variety of state and local initiatives, including a “Flood Resiliency Blueprint” to guide policy, improvements to roads, and flood-specific disaster relief.
Officials haven’t ruled out any options, according to Dello. Everything is on the table, including managed retreat, where the government incentivizes people to move out of future flood areas (sometimes by buying houses), and beach nourishment to “shore up the shore.”
North Carolinians were mostly unscathed by hurricane season this year. But, this weekend, photos emerged of Pilot Mountain on fire. Just as summers are getting wetter, winters are getting drier, resulting in raging forest fires like the one still devouring some 500 acres of mountain woodland. And the extremely dry, windy weather is working against firefighters, according to the N.C. Forest Service.
When it comes to climate change, the planet needs to attack the problem from every angle, including where it starts, with fossil fuels, Dello says.
“Climate change is here and now,” she says. “We’re supercharging the atmosphere with more moisture, but also providing more fuel for these hurricanes to form. When you add all those pieces together, we’re looking at a future that could be pretty dismal for communities in North Carolina.”
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