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State Studies How To Build Resiliency After Devastating Storms

It's hurricane season and government forecasters last week said they're now expecting above-normal activity, with five to nine Atlantic hurricanes, including two to four major storms with winds over 110 miles an hour. A conference at Duke University Wednesday looked at North Carolina's ongoing recovery from past hurricanes and what needs to happen to make the state more resilient in the face of stronger and slower moving storms. 

Eleven months ago, Hurricane Florence swept onto the North Carolina coast and stuck around for days, bringing rain, a storm surge, and flooding. On Harker's Island, near Morehead City, hundred-mile-an-hour winds caused heavy damage, including at the Core Sound Museum. Executive Director Karen Amspacher said she doesn't like the word "resilience" but says they're bouncing back. 

"For us it's strength, determination, modify and adapt, hold on, deal with it, day after day," Amspacher said.

A $3.5 million rebuilding project won't be done until next spring, says Amspacher, whose family has lived on the island for more than a century. She and her neighbors have weathered many hurricanes. But she says Florence changed the conversation. 

"People are talking about the next storm. They are even saying the word(s) climate change and sea-level rise. If there's anything to thank Florence for, it's that that reality has come to bear," Amspacher said.


The Duke conference called "The Coming Storm" brought together public officials, community organizers, residents and journalists to talk about what's being done - and what should be done - to deal with the cumulative and lingering effects of past storms. 

"The repeated flooding, the repeated losses and the repeated trauma all deplete our collective resiliency," said Duke environmental school dean Toddi Steelman.

She said disasters affect all, but can be toughest on the most vulnerable, including low-income communities, the disabled and elderly. 

"And they continue to suffer long after those of us with more resources have been able to recover," Steelman said. "So there are many reasons for us to be paying attention right now, because while the coming storm is something we need to anticipate, we are still recovering from the last storm, and the storm before that as well." 

Specifically - Florence last year, and Hurricane Matthew in 2016. Florence caused 53 deaths and an estimated $24 billion in damage, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration


As of this week, the federal government has spent $1.7 billion on Florence-related recovery and $935 million on Matthew, according to the North Carolina Office of Recovery and Resiliency. That's a new office, created this spring to help plan how to spend disaster recovery funds, and to develop new policies to make storm recovery faster and less expensive. 

Chief Resilience Officer Jessica Whitehead said there's nowhere near enough money to fix all the damage, so we need to change our thinking about where and how we rebuild. 

"We can't just build back the way that it was in an era of future storms and climate change. It's not good for the people who live and work and play and invest in North Carolina to keep doing this over and over again and expect the same result," she said. 

By not building in flood-prone areas, for example, we can avoid deaths and injuries, and rebuilding costs, Whitehead said. Gov. Roy Cooper issued an executive order (#80) last fall that calls on state agencies to do more planning - and to incorporate climate change and sea-level rise in their thinking. 

Duke environmental researcher Carter Smith has been studying what she calls "living shorelines," an alternative to sea walls and other hardened structures.  A living shoreline relies on natural vegetation and low-rising breakwaters of rocks or shells. Carter said surveys show most property owners favor structures like bulkheads, but they come with long-term costs.  

"They often need an awful lot of maintenance in that time, a lot of repairs, a lot of money and time going into fix them. Whereas natural infrastructure can capitalize on some of the abilities of these habitats to grow and adapt to changing conditions and self-repair," Carter said. 

Cedric Harrison is the founder of Support the Port in Wilmington, which has helped with Hurricane Florence recovery. With him is Andy Read, director of Duke Marine Lab.
Credit David Boraks / WFAE
Cedric Harrison is the founder of Support the Port in Wilmington, which has helped with Hurricane Florence recovery. With him is Andy Read, director of Duke Marine Lab.


Other speakers talked about the human side of hurricane recovery, including the need for better communications and coordination of post-storm relief. Cedric Harrison is a community organizer in Wilmington. Like many people, he used social media on his smartphone to help get the word out about services and to help people check up on one another during Florence. He also used his nonprofit, Support the Port, to deliver food and other aid. 

Since then, he helped organize the New Hanover County Disaster Coalition - a group of nonprofits to coordinate response and relief. 

"We have that split up in different committees. And now, every other week, we have a case management committee where people that still are being affected by the storms come and present to us what they need, from monetary things to appliances to room and board to food," Harrison said. 

Cities and towns also are changing the way they do things. Beaufort Mayor Rett Newton said power outages during Florence took away traditional communications tools, like TV and most city communications, so Beaufort has made changes.  

"We've done a better job of protecting our communications infrastructure. We've gotten on fiber, we've pushed all the servers to an area with a generator, so that won't be as affected. We have the capabilities now to push better information to the citizens," Newton said. 


But all these changes are still a work in progress, said state resiliency director Jessica Whitehead. She hopes Mother Nature will be kind this year.  

"We're hoping that we get - hope is may not the best planning strategy - but to get a season without a storm, so that we really have enough time to step back and think about, more strategically, what can be done to be more resilient," Whitehead said. 

That work will continue, this hurricane season and beyond.


Previous coverage of Hurricane Florence on WFAE.org

"The Coming Storm" conference information and video of the day-long event, bit.ly/comingstormconference

David Boraks previously covered climate change and the environment for WFAE. See more at www.wfae.org/climate-news. He also has covered housing and homelessness, energy and the environment, transportation and business.