As Hurricane Florence rages on the Carolina coast, scientists say they’ve been trying to warn state leaders for years that climate change could have devastating effects on the fragile coastline.
With the hurricane expected to wreak havoc, officials ordered the evacuation of more than a million people.
Despite their vulnerability to both climate change and hurricanes, North and South Carolina have put in place a series of policies and laws that favor coastal developers and property owners.
North Carolina made headlines in 2012 for passing a bill instructing its Coastal Resources Commission to redo a 2010 report that predicted a 39-inch sea level rise by the year 2100.
That report was targeted by the Legislature and NC-20, an economic development group for North Carolina’s 20 coastal counties that sought “responsible science concerning sea level rise.”
“The new Legislature, along with this NC-20 group, thought this report would kill off tourists and kill our coastal economies and convinced them to throw it in the trash, which they did,” said Stanley Riggs, a former professor of marine and coastal geography who worked on the 2010 report and the later version requested by the Legislature.
When the commission redid the report five years later, it looked 30 years ahead instead of 90, warning legislators the state needed to prepare for up to a 6-inch sea level rise based on existing gauge rates.
That controversy followed other efforts by lawmakers that drew less notice but also have affected the coastline’s resiliency.
The Surfrider Foundation, a coastal protection group that puts out an annual beach report card, gave unimpressive grades to most of the Southeast. Florida got a D, Georgia got an F, and North Carolina got a D-plus. South Carolina led the pack with a C.
South Carolina got better marks for its policies on beach erosion, but according to the 2017 report card, the state has done little in response to studies that have warned of rising sea levels. This year, the Legislature and governor sided with landowners along the coast by doing away with the more restrictive development rules in place.
The law came in response to building restrictions proposed by the state Department of Health and Environmental Control that would have limited development past a certain point on the beach. State Sen. Chip Campsen, a Republican, told The State he wrote the bill because the setbacks were not based on good science.
Surfrider nicked North Carolina for allowing the rebuilding of structures in hazardous areas and said its response to the 2010 report “severely delayed and hindered the use of sound scientific studies in planning for sea level rise. It also prevented drafted sea level rise policies and land use planning guidelines from being approved by the state.”
A report from the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety, a nonprofit supported by property insurers, also criticized two recent changes North Carolina has made. In 2015, state regulators ended a requirement that storm shutters be permanently installed on some buildings. In 2013, the state lengthened the time to adopt new building codes from three years to six, ensuring “the state residential code will always be one or two cycles behind the latest national model codes,” the insurance institute said.
Orrin Pilkey, a professor emeritus of earth and ocean sciences at Duke University, has been issuing public warnings about sea level rise for years. The gentle slope of the eastern part of the state means a one-foot rise could send water inland as far as 10,000 feet, he says. That topography can be especially dangerous in inland, rural parts of the state, where heavy rains near areas with a concentration of pig and chicken farms risk “the collapse of earthen lagoons containing hog manure, coal ash or other types of waste,” according to a McClatchy news report.
But it’s coastal development that has Pilkey most concerned.
“This time of urban renewal at the time of sea level rise is nothing short of madness,” he said. “Past hurricanes in the Carolinas, especially here [in North Carolina], have basically been urban renewal projects. After the storm, instead of learning from it, there’s tendency to rebuild buildings and build them bigger and better than ever before. So our coastal line is more dangerous than before, and I fear that could happen again here.”
Pilkey said the shorter timetable of the 2015 report helps greenlight roads and structures that will outlast the report’s 30-year time frame but that are unlikely to outlast encroaching waters.
But Jessica Whitehead, a hazards adaptation specialist for North Carolina Sea Grant, which helps facilitate research on coastal issues, said the Legislature’s request for a new report is often mischaracterized as stopping coastal communities from planning for the future or forcing them to ignore sea level rise. The second report also studied the coastline by region to estimate the rise in specific areas, even if on a shorter timetable.
Though 30-year predictions are more accurate than longer-term ones, she said, most plans for residential and commercial building and new infrastructure will outlast that timetable.
“A lot of those infrastructure-based services have to look past 30 years,” Whitehead said. “And if you build a house now, it’s probably going to be there in 30 years, it’s just going to take 30 years to pay off.”
Riggs said despite his displeasure with the Legislature’s decision after the first report, he stayed on to work on the second report to make sure it was scientifically sound. But he criticized development on an unstable set of barrier islands.
“We let development go on as if this is Raleigh or Charlotte. This land isn’t permanent, it moves. This whole pile of sand moves with every storm with sea level rise, and it’ll continue to move for hundreds of years. And we’ve tried to engineer it like it’s Raleigh, like it’s a rock, but it’s not. It’s sand.”