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We Aren’t Ready For Hurricanes Like Florence

cwick (Chadwick Matlin, features editor): Hello, everyone! We’re here to discuss the tremendously big, tremendously dangerous hurricane headed for the coast of the Carolinas. It has been a relatively quiet season — before Thursday, no named hurricane had made landfall in the contiguous 48 — but Hurricane Florence is piercing the calm. Many other sites have great graphics about Florence and the devastation it will likely cause, so we’re here to talk more about the science of what’s happening — and what governments should do about these destructive hurricanes that keep heading for our shores.

First question for you all: What about Florence is most striking for you?

christie (Christie Aschwanden, lead science writer): It looks likely to be slow and possibly stall over land, as Hurricane Harvey did last year. It’s the flooding that poses the greatest risk for catastrophic harm, and a slow storm can unleash a lot of water.

anna (Anna Maria Barry-Jester, lead health writer): Two things stand out here: where it is projected to hit and the nature of the storm. So to your point, Christie, it looks like it’s going to bring big winds and big storm surges, AND it’s projected to sit for a while and bring a lot of rain.

maggiekb (Maggie Koerth-Baker, senior science writer): And just so much stuff is in its way. I think historically we’ve tended to think about hurricanes in terms of home damage, but if there’s one thing we all took away from Harvey last year, it’s that you also have critical infrastructure, factories, farms.

christie: Great point, Maggie. There are a lot of hog farms and at least two nuclear power plants in its path.

anna: That’s particularly troubling given the geography of the Carolinas: barrier islands that are right in the path and a low-lying area that extends far inland — much of which, yes, has hog farms and other agriculture on it. These sites have flooded before, but the farmers say they’ve made changes, and the waste pits, which caused contamination in the past, are required to have a buffer of at least 19 inches, though the North Carolina Pork Council says most have a capacity that’s far greater.

maggiekb: And all of those things equate to big impacts on national economy and business, as well as risks for people living in the area when the flooding carries contaminants.

christie: And whatever infrastructure damage happens, it could take a long time to clean up.

maggiekb: Yeah, the hog farms were one of the big things I was thinking about. Also just wastewater treatment facilities, in general, which tend to be sited in low-lying areas.

christie: And right now, the map of potential storm surge flooding looks pretty bad.

cwick: I take your point that there’s lots of stuff in the way. But is there any good piece of land for a hurricane to hit?

anna: No, that’s a great point, Chad, but the geography of the Carolinas makes it particularly challenging. Rick Luettich, the lead principal investigator for the Department of Homeland Security’s Coastal Resilience Center, explained to me that the barrier islands frequently get hit from the front and then from the back when a hurricane passes over them. Then all that inland lowland can make for a lot of flooding.

cwick: I guess what I am searching for is a way to handicap whether Florence represents something destructive and new, or just something destructive.

Maybe that’s a coward’s way of asking: How much does global warming have to do with Florence?

maggiekb: Those are pretty different questions. Made me stop and change what I was typing.

cwick: Well now I want to know the answers to both!

anna: I just spoke to Gavin Smith, who runs the Coastal Resilience Center. He pointed out that this hurricane has the markers of two of the last big hurricanes to come over the Carolinas, Fran and Floyd, which is part of why they are so concerned.

christie: So I posed the question of climate change and hurricanes to Kevin Trenberth, a climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. He told me that globally, the oceans are the hottest ever. And he said that warming provides “fuel for the storm” by creating evaporated moisture that releases latent heat into the storm and causes heavy rains. There’s about 10 percent more moisture in the air over the oceans now as a result of this process, Trenberth said, and that translates to about a 30 percent change in rainfall and more intense and larger storms.

And regarding Florence, global warming is a contributor here, Trenberth said, because this is a region where sea surface temps are well above normal and the ocean heat content is also well above normal. Earlier this year, he and his colleagues published a paper demonstrating that “human-caused climate change is supercharging [hurricanes] and exacerbating the risk of major damage.”

maggiekb: I mean, all big hurricanes are damaging. And they damage different areas in different ways, because geography and infrastructure and sociocultural stuff vary from place to place. What I was typing when you asked the first question, Chad, was that I am really hesitant to frame every big storm as SOMETHING NEW AND UNIQUELY HORRIBLE. It’s not exactly. What’s horrible is that there’s evidence they’re becoming more common and there’s more stuff we’re sticking in the path of those more common storms.

Maybe what I’m trying to do is bastardize “Anna Karenina” here: All beautiful days are alike; each massive hurricane is horrible in its own way.

anna: Right, Maggie — storms are storms. They happen. But the problem for us humans is what we’ve put in their path.

christie: Yes, the stuff we’re sticking in the paths of these storms is an important factor here.

cwick: But North Carolina doesn’t usually get storms like this, so are we really supposed to not build because of a chance that a hurricane may show up one day? (My favorite part of these Slack chats is asking overly prescriptive questions I know you’ll get mad at!)

anna: Well, the barrier islands of North Carolina get hit by a lot of storms, even if not hurricanes this big. Smith told me that we need to come to terms with the fact that we have to relocate off the ocean front, but it’s going to be very difficult to achieve this in reality. Since the 1990s, 5,000 homes that are prone to flooding have been bought out in North Carolina. It’s a voluntary program. Smith said not one has been on a barrier island.

christie: In 2012, North Carolina’s Coastal Resources Commission had a scientific assessment saying that the state’s coastal communities should expect about 39 inches of sea level rise by 2100. The Republican-controlled state Legislature responded by passing a law that forbids the state from using such predictions in its policies.

anna: Which brings us to the hot topic of building codes.

cwick: Way to bring the 🔥, Anna.

christie: 🔥

cwick: Christie, an emoji jinx is a very special jinx.

christie: So special!

anna: The codes should really somehow account for uncertainty, but … do not.

cwick: Anna, what would it look like if a building code did?

anna: It would be malleable and allow cities to change requirements over time. BUT ALSO it would require greater setbacks from the ocean, higher elevation standards, things like that.

maggiekb: One thing that I think is especially important here is that, under our current system of building codes and federal incentives, a big storm like this actually INCREASES the damage risk for the next storm that comes along. This is something that Chad McGuire, a professor of environmental policy at UMass Dartmouth, pointed out to me when I spoke to him. There have been studies that show a pattern where you have a big storm hit, TONS of money pours in for redevelopment, and that ramping up creates a higher pace of development long term than existed before. So by the time the next storm comes along, there’s more stuff in the way than there would have been if the first storm never hit.

christie: That’s fascinating, Maggie. And it makes me wonder if we’d be better off using that money to relocate those structures.

maggiekb: Probably, but the difference between what we spend on relocation vs. redevelopment is VAST. For instance, since Hurricane Sandy, there’s been about $4 billion spent on redevelopment in the New York area. And $1 billion spent on adaptation and relocation.

cwick: I love all this pre-chat reporting!

anna: Gah, so many well-intentioned programs end up encouraging more development in flood-prone areas, like the National Flood Insurance Program.

cwick: I get what the scientists and wonks and technocrats think we should do, but how are you going to counter humans’ reptilian desire to be near water? It’s one thing to tell me what would make for a better society; it’s another to convince me the sacrifices are worth it. How do we convince policymakers that this is something worth doing if their constituents would complain about it?

anna: Well … we didn’t always live in permanent structures right next to the water!

maggiekb: Another thing McGuire told me is that voters tend to reward politicians who put $$$$$ into rebuiliding.

christie: But it’s not just constituents. That North Carolina legislation banning sea level rise predictions was backed by real estate developers.

My point is that these decisions produce winners and losers, and if the losers have enough power and resources, they’re going to push back hard.

cwick: And, Christie, people who live on the beach usually do have enough resources!

anna: Right, so currently the losers are people who are poor and live in low-lying areas but can’t afford flood insurance.

maggiekb: Anna and I spent some time last year looking at a bunch of different kinds of data on the flood insurance program, and you would 👏 be 👏 amazed 👏 at how many big donors to politicians are real estate developers and construction firms.

anna: There have been efforts to reform the flood insurance program, and the pushback is intense. The premiums some people would have to pay to accurately capture the risk would be astronomically high.

christie: Right, if the residents had to pay the true cost of living there, they would choose to move elsewhere. But instead, society bears the burden.

maggiekb: But state and local governments keep giving developers exemptions to build in the very places where the risk would be huge.

christie: And then when they flood, the federal program bails them out…

maggiekb: As with a lot of things in U.S. policy, you get some very conflicting signals from different levels of government operating independently of one another.

anna: As someone who lives in California, I feel I must acknowledge that lots of us live in places with all kinds of risk (wildfire, earthquakes, flash floods, tornadoes) and may eventually get partially bailed out by the government. That said, we could be doing a lot more to prevent new construction in particularly prone areas — and be doing a lot more to adapt where people already live and/or help people move out of really flood-prone places.

There are some areas that have taken that task very seriously. After Hurricane Fran, practically the entire town of Belhaven, North Carolina, was elevated. That was an effort led by city officials.

cwick: I am sorry to keep being a wet blanket (and I am about to be the worst kind — a Brooklyn kind) … but … capitalism, you guys! What you’re asking for seems counter to the way a) our society is set up and b) what is best for politicians, who need to change the regulations. We are very bad about letting things lie empty when there is money to be had by filling them in. The Carolina coastline isn’t Utah canyon country. Is there an economic case that can convince me, the governor of Carolinastan, that limiting growth in these areas will cost me less, long term?

christie: That’s a bad analogy, Chad. Utah may not be filling with condos, but it’s being filled with drilling wells and mines. But you did hit on the problem here — there are so many perverse incentives to keep building in flood-prone areas.

cwick: Good point. But also proves my point that we barely have any empty spaces!

maggiekb: I’m pretty skeptical of getting anywhere with this, Chad. (Hi, the group’s environmental-legislation cynic, reporting for duty!)

christie: Humans are not good at sacrificing now to benefit later. You think you can get lawmakers to think of their “future selves” that will be inundated with flood water? That has never worked for me re: procrastination. Present me is totally willing to screw future me, who will be scrambling to make the deadline. There’s been some research on this in relation to how people adapt to global warming, and some people point to this as a major impediment to taking action on climate change.

anna: I’m not gonna try and make a political case for change, Chad. We could definitely acknowledge the problem now and make plans for future building. And in parallel, think about how to handle what’s already there.

maggiekb: A paper came out this year showing that you could save $50 billion over the next few decades by investing in natural barrier restoration projects on the Gulf Coast, for instance. Of course, one thing that was interesting about this study is that it explicitly pointed out that we tend to prioritize these kinds of projects in places where they make the least economic sense — spending lots of money to protect places with not much pricey development to protect. The cost-benefit breakdown is a lot better if you’re building natural barriers for heavily populated Florida beaches as opposed to rural Texas wetlands. We tend to treat this as purely a habitat conservation measure and not an infrastructure protection one.

cwick: Are there other places that have done this kind of sacrifice you’re saying would be wise?

anna: I mentioned Belhaven. There was also a big buyout on Texas’s Bolivar Peninsula off of Galveston Bay after Hurricane Ike. And while there are places restricting building, there are also a bunch of places where we’re building like crazy in areas that are flood-prone. AND places where new development is probably causing flooding or making it worse in existing homes. Smith also pointed to the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact — which is a consortium of counties in South Florida trying to work on adaptation and mitigation, despite the lack of a clear national or state plan — as another place trying to address the issue of sea level rise.

maggiekb: This isn’t the world’s most optimistic chat, really. I mean, I got in contact with McGuire because of work he’d done on the economic and sociocultural barriers to coastal climate change adaptation. And when I asked him who is getting coastal climate change adaptation RIGHT currently … he struggled. He did say he liked the way Boston was TALKING about this stuff.

cwick: Why’s that, Maggie? What has Boston done?

maggiekb: It has produced a report that really ties together a lot of the different threads that have to be addressed to make adaptation happen. Legal, regulatory, infrastructure — there’s a bunch of stuff happening all at once, and they all affect each other. But that’s more like laying out what you need to do, rather than doing something. He called it a “starting point.”

I’m curious what you think of one thing that McGuire said, Anna. He told me that something he liked about the Boston work, and something it got right, was a shift from thinking about land as a static (passive) resource to thinking about it as an active hazard. Which is a really different way to think about land than America historically has. And is, again, really in conflict with our legal and business systems.

anna: Yeah, that’s really fascinating. And, yes, there’s a lot that’s pretty challenging here about the ways we think about private property and what the government’s responsibility is to facilitate that private property. So, for example, whether cities need to maintain roads or are allowed to determine they aren’t viable. Did McGuire say anything about what that shift looks like in practice, Maggie?

maggiekb: Unfortunately, not much. But some of what he’s alluding to here is, yeah, cities getting out of the business of seeing nearby, unused land, annexing it, putting in sewer and roads and making it developable — at least getting out of the business of doing that reflexively. It’s good for the tax base. It’s good for your developer donors. It’s bad if the land is undeveloped because it freaking floods a lot.

cwick: This chat has been very focused on what we can do in the months and years to come, but for more than a million people, Florence is posing an immediate threat. Does science — or our sources — have any advice for those in harm’s way this week?

anna: The people I talked to in North Carolina just really stressed that people should heed the mandatory evacuations and leave the area.

christie: Get out early if you can. It’s not the wind that makes a hurricane like this so dangerous; it’s the water. And once that starts to become a problem, you may not have a way to get out.

maggiekb: Yeah. That’s basically what I was hearing, too. If you can go, go. If you can convince someone else to go, try.

anna: The storm surge alone could be as high as 13 feet in some areas, according to forecasts from the National Hurricane Center.

christie: And it can happen very fast. You can’t wait to see if it’s going to be a problem.

Anna Maria Barry-Jester is a senior reporter at Kaiser Health News and California Healthline, and formerly a reporter for FiveThirtyEight.

Christie Aschwanden was a lead science writer for FiveThirtyEight. Her book “Good to Go: What the Athlete in All of Us Can Learn from the Strange Science of Recovery” is available here.

Chadwick Matlin was a deputy managing editor at FiveThirtyEight.

Maggie Koerth was a senior reporter for FiveThirtyEight.