Climate & Hurricanes: Future Storms in the Carolinas, Part Two

Hurricanes of the future will challenge the Carolinas, inevitably costing lives and wrecking property, just as they have for centuries. The fact that their winds, tides and rains will be enhanced by climate change is a real concern. But there are arguably other factors to consider that will have a far greater influence on the scale of property damages and human losses we should expect from hurricanes in the decades ahead.

The biggest factors: population growth and our communities’ ability to adapt and become more resilient to the hurricane threat.

Powerful hurricanes swept the Carolinas through the colonial period, wrecking fleets and destroying coastal settlements. As potent as they might have been, similar storms today have a far greater impact on people and communities. In simple terms, steady population growth has put more people and property in harm’s way, and today North and South Carolina each rank among the nation’s fastest growing states. 

Population growth in U.S. is greatest near the shore; the Carolinas are no exception. That trend is expected to continue, as popular vacation destinations such as Hilton Head, Myrtle Beach, Wrightsville Beach, and the Outer Banks attract more year-round residents, and surrounding communities fill with retirees and supporting workers. Higher populations at the coast practically guarantee escalating property damages during future hurricane strikes, partly due to the sheer number of people and structures. The growth of wealth also plays a role—today’s homes, cars and boats are far more costly than those of just a few decades ago.

The Tar River swallowed whole communities in the days following Hurricane Floyd, forcing many onto their roofs. Members of this Pactolus family could only reach their home by boat. (Photo by Dave Gately; courtesy of FEMA)

Our greatest vulnerabilities may lie farther inland, across the Carolinas’ broad coastal plain. These mostly-rural counties are growing too, and they’re crisscrossed by rivers and streams that have already proven lethal and destructive when hurricane rains push them beyond their banks. More populous inland counties near Raleigh, Greensboro, Charlotte and Columbia are vulnerable too, each suffering through destructive hurricane floods in recent years.

At more than $24 billion, 2018’s Hurricane Florence was the Carolina’s most costly hurricane disaster. Though widespread, its greatest flooding impact was in these inland areas. Continued growth brings urbanization, as forests and farmlands are converted for streets and structures—often inhibiting natural runoff and enhancing flooding risk.

The growth trend will continue. In 2019, South Carolina’s Floodwater Commission reported that by 2100, 5.8 million acres of the state’s urban and suburban land will have been developed, a 305 percent increase over developed areas in 2010. North Carolina expects similar steady growth.

That growth will have a positive economic influence that will be welcomed by most. But with it will come the responsibility of managing the what, where, when, and how of land development. Community leaders across the Carolinas, at the federal, state and local levels will be challenged to plan for what future storms will deliver. Revised land use plans, building codes, and other regulations will be needed to help minimize the vulnerability of new development projects.

Gavin Smith, professor at NC State University’s College of Design, teaches classes focused on natural hazards, disasters, and climate change adaptation. He sees a future where local leaders can do a lot to mitigate the impact of future hurricanes.

“In many cases communities have designed themselves, I would argue, in ways that reflect the climate of the past,” says Smith. “Creating more resilient communities is all about good governance . . . Local governments have within their toolkits a whole slew of land-use tools and techniques they can employ to reduce risks . . . They can make choices about where and how building should take place . . . But we find that after the disasters it’s not about the tools they possess; it’s also about the political will to take action. Sometimes that’s difficult to achieve in the aftermath of a disaster.”

In years to come, this will be the challenge: how can communities most vulnerable to hurricane floods become more resilient? Experts in the field contend that effective resiliency takes many forms and is not limited to physical projects like flood gates and seawalls. Communities large and small are now exploring what it means to be hurricane resilient, learning how to protect the environment and enhance their economic and social capacities while planning for growth and the necessary physical improvements that come with it.

And in preparing for that future, we can look to the past to be reminded of what kinds of threats to expect. For most, it will again be rising water. Carolina residents would be wise to remember these truisms from our experience with Hurricane Florence: “Just because it’s never flooded before doesn’t mean it can’t” and “If it’s flooded before, it will flood again!”

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