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Experts Warn Some Coastal Residents Should Consider Rebuilding Inland

Kenny Babb walks down a staircase on his flooded property as the Little River continues to rise in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence. Coastal residents may have to accept floods as part of life.
David Goldman
Kenny Babb walks down a staircase on his flooded property as the Little River continues to rise in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence. Coastal residents may have to accept floods as part of life.

The sun is shining again on North Carolina as the remnants of Hurricane Florence have moved into the mid-Atlantic. But a catastrophe is still unfolding, as rivers rise after days of torrential rains. As residents of the Carolinas start to clean up, difficult questions are being raised about how to best recover along the coastline and whether some residents facing repeated flooding should consider moving inland.

Water rescues continue. At the Emergency Operations Center in Raleigh, John Dorman with the North Carolina Department of Emergency Management is directing a team calculating flood levels, "then taking those flood elevations and determining if buildings will be flooded and how deep," he explains.

They're using a Web-based application called the Flood Inundation Map and Alert Network. "We'll click on this one down here in a town called Burgaw, it's in the Cape Fear River Basin," says Dorman.

The database includes where buildings are, their first-floor elevation and how high the water is. It even estimates the cost of the damage. Dorman zooms in on a mobile home in Burgaw.

"That mobile home has got about $11,907 damage to it," he says. "But more importantly, it's got 2 feet of water in the mobile home. This really helps out on the response side to know exactly where to go."

The same model also shows whether the property is covered by flood insurance. Dorman says early indications are that the majority of the destruction here won't be covered. He says the state has been working to change that and get people to think about insurance and mitigation — taking measures to reduce the risk of a flood.

"So that we can live with the rivers and the coast and be more resilient," says Dorman.


Resilient is a word you hear a lot during disasters.

"We are resilient and we will continue to rebuild," says Amy Cannon, the Cumberland County manager, where the Cape Fear and Little rivers are overflowing their banks.

"I think we need to look at mitigation measures in low-lying areas," she says. "And determine how we can mitigate these areas — cleaning out creek beds and streams from debris."

For some residents, like Preston Harris of Fayetteville, being resilient means rebuilding time and time again and accepting floods as part of life. "It's just something to deal with when you're living on the river," Harris says.

But, experts say, even if people elevate their houses when they rebuild and communities clear out creek beds, those typical mitigation efforts won't be enough in some places. This unprecedented flood is raising questions about what recovery should look like.

Two 500-year floods within two years

Gov. Roy Cooper says the experience two years ago with Hurricane Matthew, and now Florence, means it's time to rethink.

"When you have two 500-year floods within two years of each other, it's pretty clear it's not a 500-year flood," Cooper says. He says long-range planning will be key. "We will have to look at flooded properties, work on mitigation and buyouts and being smart about how we recover," says Cooper.

Now is the time to start slowly retreating from the shoreline.

"Now is the time to start slowly retreating from the shoreline," says Orrin Pilkey, professor emeritus of earth and ocean studies at Duke University. He has written numerous books about living with water and an eroding coast, including Retreat from a Rising Sea: Hard Choices in an Age of Climate Change.

He says this kind of "superflood" inland should be a wake-up call. Not all of the communities devastated by Florence should recover.

"We have two choices," Pilkey says. "Move back now in a planned fashion or move back later catastrophically." But state law favors property development interests, Pilkey says, and assumes the sea will rise only inches when scientists predict sea level rise measured in feet.

Tension over how, when and where to rebuild

There's always tension between rebuilding quickly and a recovery that fosters resiliency, says Elizabeth Albright, assistant professor of the practice of environmental science and policy methods at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment. She studies how people and communities respond after extreme flood events and says recovery is not just about where you will live, but how you'll make a living.

She believes the future of the rural economy here is at stake. "[The question is] whether or not it's prepared to adapt to a changing climate going into the future," says Albright. "Eastern North Carolina is very resource dependent. Forest, fisheries, agriculture, and I worry very much are we ready for 'the new normal' of more extreme events."

Early estimates have the damage from Florence nearing $20 billion, and the crisis is still unfolding. Ahead is a recovery that will be measured in years, not months.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: September 19, 2018 at 12:00 AM EDT
A previous Web version of this story incorrectly referred to the town of Burgaw as Bregal.
NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.

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