Updated: May 10
More than three weeks after Hurricane Florence made landfall on the North Carolina coast, only a light breeze kept the smell of mold from being overwhelming along the streets in Fairfield Harbor. The community near New Bern no longer had a functioning gate, which probably makes it easier for cleanup crews trying to dry out the lovely homes surrounding the golf course. They have disgorged their first-floor furnishings along with wallboard, insulation, appliances and wiring onto lawns, where it sat in careless heaps, souring. Some homeowners are living on the second floor of their homes. One or two appear to be living in recreational vehicles parked in their driveways.
A bad situation got worse when local officials asked people to cover debris piles with tarps to keep them from being scattered after warnings that Hurricane Michael could cause tropical storm force winds in New Bern. Hurricane Michael packed winds of 155 miles per hour when it hit the Florida Panhandle last week.
How long will it be before life gets back to normal for those who live here? A long time by the look of things. And at what cost, especially for those with children and the elderly? Or to counties and municipalities who must haul all that debris away and dump it into landfills at taxpayers’ expense? Or to those without flood insurance?
A Washington Post analysis comparing the number of policies in National Flood Insurance Program with the number of housing units in counties hit by the storm found that in Craven County, home to New Bern, only 9.9 percent of homes are covered by flood insurance. Home insurance doesn’t usually cover flooding, something many people don’t realize until their home floods and they try to make a claim. Most flood insurance is purchased through the National Flood Insurance Program administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. In Wilmington, located in New Hanover County and also the scene of severe flooding, 14.2 percent of homes have flood insurance, according to The Post analysis.
Reporting by the Houston Chronicle following Hurricane Harvey in 2017, that while the National Flood Insurance Program was designed to insure properties vulnerable to flooding, only half of such properties carry flood insurance as required by law. The program, created by Congress in 1968, was intended to reduce the costs of disaster relief, but those costs have exploded, the Chronicle found, and while it was supposed to be self-supporting, premiums don’t come close to covering the expenses, requiring repeated bailouts by taxpayers.
The Chronicle reported that numerous attempts to reform the program have been thwarted by real estate developers and builders bent on developing coastal property and some coastal leaders who covet the tax revenue that development brings.
The failure of this legislation isn’t just in its cost to taxpayers, it’s in the misery it causes homeowners enticed to buy in flood-prone areas by low cost flood insurance, which rarely covers all the costs associated with the damage. To make matters worse, even those who would like to move often find themselves trapped because the value of their homes, once flooded, plummets.
Sadly, the debris-lined streets of Fairfield Harbor create a scene observed far too often these days. Extreme flooding from Hurricane Matthew in October 2017 killed 28 people and damaged or destroyed more than 90,000 homes in North Carolina at a cost of $4.8 billion. But Matthew paled by comparison to Sandy, Harvey, Irma, Maria and other storms that have wreaked monumental damage on U.S. soil during past few years. And then there’s Michael, which came ashore at Mexico Beach, Fla., last week as the strongest storm to make landfall in the continental US since Hurricane Andrew in 1992.
Two converging factors appear to be escalating this devastation. Scientists believe rising ocean temperatures may be contributing to more powerful hurricanes with more rainfall and higher storm surge, which is compounded by rising sea level. That, along with denser development in low lying coastal areas, creates a recipe for calamity.
A report issued on October 8, 2018, by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a group of scientists convened by the United Nations to guide world leaders, warned that if greenhouse gas emissions continue at the current rate, the atmosphere will warm up by as much as 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5 degrees Celsius) above preindustrial levels by 2040. Among the many results will be rising sea level and more extreme weather. The scientists conclude that only by dramatically reducing greenhouse gas emissions over the next 12 years can the direst consequences be avoided and they concede that’s politically unlikely.
The failure of flood insurance reform is only one example of unworkable policies that short-sighted lawmakers indebted to special interests seem unable to address. At a time when we need visionary, principled leaders to deal with the challenges that confront us in North Carolina and the nation, the North Carolina General Assembly and Congress seem trapped in old models of economic prosperity and development that are not sustainable. And they are enslaved to special interests by campaign finance laws that favor big money over constituents’ interests.
As a state and nation, we are consumed in a partisan fray we can ill afford. Our best hope is to use every means available to tell lawmakers and candidates for office that we expect them to stop demonizing and start reaching across the aisle, to stop putting party and special interests ahead of the state and country. And we need to vote against those who fail to do so, whatever their party.