New Bern, N.C. was hit hard by flooding from Hurricane FlorenceNew Bern was one of many communities in inland North Carolina hit hard by flooding from Hurricane Florence. Photo credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

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By Dana Drugmand

As North and South Carolina begin a long recovery process after Hurricane Florence, the lingering question is whether the storm will result in a reevaluation of coastal living. Despite the devastation— with at least 20 people killed, countless buildings and beaches destroyed or damaged and widespread flooding stretching far inland—Florence may not be the climate change wake-up call that many hope it will be.

“I don’t know what kind of out-of-the-box thinking we will see as a result of this storm,” said Andy Coburn, associate director of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines (PSDS) at Western Carolina University. “We hope for change, but there’s been no big change in how we respond to these storms. Money and politics tends to get in the way.”

The Carolinas’ coastline has plenty of reason to pay attention to the impacts of storms made more damaging by climate change. Rising seas have already cost in $1.6 billion in lost property values along the Carolina coast, according to one study. A recent study from First Street Foundation found that sea level rise flooding from 2005-17 has resulted in $7.4 billion in lost property value across five southeastern states, including $1.1. billion in South Carolina and $582 million in North Carolina.

A significant storm like Florence carries even heavier costs. One pre-storm estimate from CoreLogic calculated that had Florence hit the coast directly as a Category 4 hurricane, it could have caused up to $170 billion in property damage—the cost to rebuild 758,657 homes in North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia.

That worst-case scenario did not materialize, as Florence weakened significantly before it made landfall last weekend. But the damage costs will still be in the billions of dollars. CoreLogic revised its initial estimate to a significantly lower number—between $3 billion and $5 billion in insured property losses—but that does not include damage from rainfall, river and inland flooding damage, meaning the total is likely to be much higher. It also does not include the damage cost for uninsured properties. A recent analysis of federal flood insurance coverage in North and South Carolina revealed that just inland from the coast, most homeowners did not have any flood insurance.

A CoreLogic spokesperson said the firm plans to release updated estimates for insured and uninsured flood losses from Florence as soon as the rain subsides.

Despite the heavy toll, getting people to recognize climate change’s role in storm damage and preparing for them has been a tough political issue. When a North Carolina coastal commission reported in 2010 that the state would likely experience up to 39 inches of sea level rise by 2100, real estate and business interests backed a bill prohibiting consideration of future projections of “accelerated” sea level rise in coastal management policies. That bill became law in 2012. Essentially, the North Carolina legislature chose to ignore sea level rise warnings that implied inundation of billions of dollars in coastal properties.

Hurricanes causing billions of dollars in damage are becoming increasingly common. According to data from NOAA and the National Hurricane Center, three of the top five costliest hurricanes in U.S. history occurred last year, and nine of the top 10 have happened within the last 15 years. Katrina was the costliest, at $160 billion in 2005. Harvey (2017) comes in second at $125 billion, followed by Maria (2017, $90 billion), Sandy (2012, $70.2 billion), and Irma (2017, $50 billion).

The last big storm impacting the Carolinas and southeastern coast was Hurricane Matthew in 2016, costing $10.3 billion in damage. Florence could likely top that cost.

Climate scientists have warned that rising ocean and atmospheric temperatures would result in more destructive storms. As Hurricane Florence gathered strength over warm Atlantic waters last week, it drew comparisons to Hurricane Harvey that drenched Houston with more than 50 inches of rain last year. Studies have concluded that climate change made Harvey’s record rainfall three times more likely, and a first-of-its-kind pre-storm attribution study found that Florence would be much rainier and larger in size because of climate change. Climate scientist Dr. Michael Mann explained in a Guardian op-ed that Florence is a “climate change triple threat,” referring to the role global warming played in amplifying wind strength, storm surge, and inland flooding.  

A Coastal Reckoning?

Despite these warnings, and despite clear evidence that costs are rising as sea level rises and storms intensify, there has been little change in climate adaptation strategy along the southeastern coast. North Carolina is not alone in its choice to ignore science in favor of development. Florida Gov. Rick Scott continues to doubt the science behind climate change and had reportedly once banned use of the term climate change in official communications, although he continues to deny that was a policy.

Coburn of PSDS said that moving forward, he hopes to see widespread acknowledgement that climate change is real and sea level rise is happening, and for politicians to accept the science.

“There are always opportunities after events like this to do things better and make improvements,” he said, referring to Florence. The typical response has been to rebuild exactly like before on vulnerable shoreline, but he said there needs to be careful consideration of how to rebuild. The current system of flood insurance, under the National Flood Insurance Program, has paid to repeatedly rebuild homes that are continually damaged, at taxpayer expense.

“People that have oceanfront property tend to be very politically influential and affluent,” added Dr. Orrin Pilkey, coastal geologist at Duke University and founder of PSDS. He described North Carolina’s current coastal management strategy of continually building up the shoreline as “welfare for the rich.”

Pilkey also decried the federal program that continually replenishes beaches after storms wash them away. “We’re spending an awful lot of money on beach nourishment,” he said. “It’s really something we have to re-examine.”

Like Coburn, Dr. Pilkey said he doesn’t think coastal adaptation will change post-Florence. “We’ll just put the beach back.”

But this response, he explained, is a losing battle.

“As the sea level rises, the shoreline wants to move back inland. Nourished beaches are very unstable and will disappear fast.” He said beach nourishment will not be possible in the coming decades.  

“Anything that requires us to hold the shoreline in place is not going to work. We cannot hold the shoreline in place.”

Pilkey, co-author of the 2016 book Retreat from a Rising Sea, sees managed retreat as the only sensible long-term solution.

“We’re beginning to see the impact of rising sea level on storms, and storms are just going to get worse,” he said. “The time has come to move, to face the facts and retreat from the shoreline.”