Q&A: North Carolina Resilience Office Plans For Big Storms. But Will Its Funding Expire This Year?
Climate change is bringing more intense storms, flooding and other weather extremes that can leave communities devastated.
Hurricanes Matthew and Florence caused at least $3.5 billion of damage in eastern North Carolina in 2016 and 2018. So Gov. Roy Cooper created the North Carolina Office of Recovery and Resiliency, or NCORR, to manage the recovery and plan ahead for the next big storms. He also appointed the state's first chief resilience officer to be an advocate for building resilience across state and local governments. Amanda Martin has that job now, replacing Jessica Whitehead who was the first to hold it.
As part of WFAE's expanded climate coverage, WFAE's David Boraks talked with Martin about resilience and uncertainty over whether lawmakers will keep her office going when funding expires later this year.
Amanda Martin: We play an advisory role all day, every day. We are talking with state agencies, we talk with the governor, we talk with really anyone who wants to call us right now about how they can integrate resilience into their policy, their programs, their investments, what resources are out there to help them do that.
We have homeowner-focused recovery programs to help homeowners rebuild their home, sometimes elevate their home, or if they are interested and they live in a place that's really unsafe, to help them move out of that home and move somewhere else through our buyout program… And the resiliency program makes sure that that safe and healthy home, we try to advise those recovery programs on ensuring that home will withstand the next disaster.
Boraks: So you've been with this office almost since it started. Have you seen any examples of this? This opportunity to buy out people?
Martin: So, we have a buyout program within NCORR. We have launched it in particular zones in eastern North Carolina, where we've seen the greatest amount of risk, greatest amount of damage and the greatest amount of interest from homeowners. It's entirely optional, and that's a really important aspect of our program. And, again over at our sibling agency at Emergency Management, they also have a buyout program. And so this is actually a continuous effort that the state agencies have to reach eligible homeowners and determine their level of interest and get them engaged in a program.
Boraks: You have a Ph.D. in city and regional planning. And your research, as I have read, was specifically about buyout programs. What did you learn? And how does it inform what you're doing right now?
Martin: What my research found is that a lot of these buyout programs are understandably very focused on this front end of completing the buyout, of talking with homeowners of getting appraisals of kind of working through this very onerous paperwork process. But what is left behind after the buyout is this parcel of land, which in most buyout programs has to be maintained as open space in perpetuity so that we don't go back and put somebody in that risky location.
But what actually happens on that land really matters. It matters to that community that stays there. And so one of the things that we've been talking about a lot here at NCORR is how we can find resources to support communities in thinking about what would be next for them after a buyout program is complete. Can that land be turned into a park of some sort, a community garden, or even restored to its ecological function? Because these are in floodplains. Can they play some kind of flood mitigation role if they're restored properly?
Boraks: Besides flood risk, what are some of the other major issues that you work on?
Martin: Flood risk really is about 95% of my week. But we do worry about other climate change impacts. Heat is one that we talk about a fair amount. It puts a stress on our cardiovascular system. And we see during heat waves increased admissions to emergency departments for cardiac issues. It's very dangerous for seniors who live alone or anyone who lives alone, really, but seniors are especially at risk. But it doesn't cause property damage. And so that's why sometimes it's called the silent killer because we don't get as much media coverage really on heat.
Boraks: What are the biggest challenges for your office?
Martin: A lot of what we do is outside of our control. So we don't have our own funding or authority, sort of, to mandate anything. So a lot of what we do is build relationships, support, support the cause, help people understand how their resources or their authority can be used to advance resilience. So that's a built-in challenge for us. A more immediate challenge is the uncertainty of funding this office — the resiliency office, specifically.
Boraks: The Office of Recovery and Resiliency and Martin's job initially were funded for three years and they're coming up for renewal. The office would become permanent under a bill that's now making its way through the state House, the Disaster Relief and Mitigation Act of 2021 (House Bill 500). It also includes $200 million to help state and local governments and nonprofits with planning and projects to prevent flooding. And there's money to shore up interstate highways and other transportation infrastructure for storms, mudslides and flooding. I asked Martin about the funding situation.
Martin: The funding that we have we anticipate to last about the next year for our three-person staff… So that's something that we are concerned about ... not to use another buzzword, but the long -erm sustainability of the resilience work in the state, having it have a cohesive direction and coordinating function… We need to identify clear sources of funding for that to happen.
Boraks: What should local communities be thinking about when it comes to resilience?
Martin: We actually have a whole program built around that. We call it our Resilient Communities program. And we encourage communities to really take a hard look at their own vulnerabilities to climate issues and their past experience with disasters, and then to formulate priority projects or strategic priority actions.
Some things that we often look at are land-use issues because changes in land use have such a big impact on flood risk. So looking at locating your growth outside of risky areas and then trying to reduce some of your impact of what we call impervious surface. So land uses that don't allow water to absorb using some greener solutions, like bioswales, to absorb some of the runoff from rainfall events.
We talk about communications, emergency management, ensuring that your community is aware of those resources that are available to them. There are so many different ways that communities can advance their resilience. And we want communities to take ownership and to really identify their own. We can set the stage with identifying all these possible pathways to take it. We want communities to select the one that fits their community fits their needs and they want to champion and take forward.
Boraks: Amanda Martin is North Carolina's chief resilience officer. The Disaster Relief and Mitigation Act, which would keep the resilience office going, passed the state House environment committee unanimously in June. It's now awaiting action in the House Appropriations Committee.