The Hidden Dangers of Hurricane Florence: Catastrophic Storm Surge and Inland Flooding Threatens Rural and Low-Income Communities

September 11, 2018 | 12:40 pm
National Guard
Rachel Cleetus
Policy Director

En español > 

Over the last few days, we have watched with deepening dismay as the forecast for Hurricane Florence has turned increasingly grim. This rapidly intensifying hurricane is now on a trajectory to come ashore somewhere along the southeast coast, likely in North Carolina, potentially as a Category 4 storm. What heightens the risks of this storm is the forecast of days of lingering heavy rain, threatening not just coastal but also inland areas.

A coastal emergency compounded by inland flooding

This was projected to be a below-normal or near-normal hurricane season—but any complacency that may have engendered has changed very quickly. Yesterday, the National Hurricane Center (NHC) was tracking no less than three storms in the Atlantic and there are additional advisories in the Pacific. And it just takes one major landfalling hurricane to make it a terrible season.

(On the other side of the world, super-typhoon Mangkhut is threatening the Philippines, Taiwan and China, after passing over Guam.)

Coastal states in the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic are clearly taking Hurricane Florence very seriously. As of now, there are emergency evacuation orders for well over a million people across North and South Carolina, Virginia and Maryland.

The Navy has moved ships from Naval Station Norfolk out to sea to ride out the storm more safely.

Duke Energy is gearing up for major impacts to the power system in North and South Carolina and getting emergency crews in place to restore power after the storm passes. In a news release it warned of widespread outages in North and South Carolina, potentially lasting days or weeks. The company said that impacts could exceed that of hurricane Matthew, which caused 1.5 million Duke customers to lose power and cost $125 million in repairs.

What makes this storm especially scary is the huge storm surge and major rainfall that is predicted to accompany it. Forecasts show that the storm might stall creating a multi-day extreme precipitation event, similar to what residents of Houston experienced in the wake of Hurricane Harvey last year and are still struggling to recover from.

The latest advisory from the National Hurricane Center indicates that if the peak of the storm surge coincides with high tide, areas from Cape Fear to Cape Lookout, including the Neuse and Pamlico rivers, could see surge as high as 6 to 12 feet! Other parts of coastal North Carolina and Virginia, including low-lying coastal areas, could see 2 to 8 feet of storm surge.

Alarmingly, the forecast also indicates the potential for 15 to 20 inches of rain from the storm, with some areas of North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia expected to experience as much as 30 inches through Saturday! Depending on the track of the storm, places as far away as West Virginia could also see heavy rain and flash flooding in the days to come.

Unfortunately, much of the southeast and mid-Atlantic, including North Carolina, Virginia and the Washington DC area have experienced above-normal rainfall over the past weeks, so the ground is already saturated. With more rainfall coming, catastrophic flooding—including in inland areas—is very likely.

Potential impacts from the storm

A storm of this magnitude will undoubtedly cause great harm. Hopefully, with the advance warning and preparation underway, loss of life will be avoided.

Early analysis from CoreLogic shows that nearly 759,000 homes across North and South Carolina and Virginia, with a reconstruction value of over $170 billion, lie in the path of the storm surge from Hurricane Florence, were it to come ashore as a category 4 storm.

In rural communities in North Carolina, experience from previous storms shows that flooding could cause waste lagoons from hog farms to overflow, contaminating rivers and streams. Coal ash ponds can (and do) also leak toxic contaminants. And wastewater treatment facilities could be overwhelmed by floodwaters.

Sewage and waste can also contaminate groundwater, affecting the well water that many rural communities depend on for their drinking water supplies.

Loss of power, especially for long periods of time, can be life-threatening for patients in hospitals and others with medical conditions, if they are not quickly moved to safety, as we witnessed so tragically after hurricanes Irma and Maria hit last year.

Those incarcerated in prisons also must be evacuated for their safety—it is troubling to see news reports that, as of now, South Carolina has chosen not to evacuate a prison in Jasper County.

Disaster preparedness requires advance planning

The emergency response to Hurricane Florence hasn’t just been conjured up in the last few days; emergency managers, planners and utility managers are using hard-won experience from previous disasters to prepare for this storm. Hurricanes Floyd and Matthew taught some bitter lessons.

Getting people out of harm’s way is job #1. Hence the mandatory evacuation orders from some of the highest risk areas that are being issued well in advance of landfall. These are warnings that people should take seriously and obey.

The storm is also going to test the resilience of critical infrastructure like roads, bridges, power lines and substations, sewage treatment plants, storm water drainage, hospitals, airports and more. Smart investments made well ahead of time will pay off in the days to come. And fatal weaknesses will be exposed where those investments fall short.

Responsible officials are not waiting for the storm to hit or for its exact path to be clear: they are acting out of an abundance of caution and making sure people and critical services are protected as best they can. (Incidentally, that’s a lesson well worth extending to how we think about preparing for the growing risks of climate change.)

How will rural, island and low-income communities fare?

The true test of our disaster response doesn’t just lie in how quickly the lights come back on or flights are restored in major economic hubs, but in how well isolated or marginalized communities fare in the aftermath of storms.

Disasters lay bare the socioeconomic inequities in our society. For some, fleeing to safety is prohibitively expensive—they may not have money for hotels or gas or even a car. Taking time off from work because of impassable roads or closed schools could mean losing a job. For those who can barely make ends meet, buying flood insurance to protect their homes or belongings can seem a luxury.

Low-income communities and communities of color are more likely to live near toxic waste sites, like coal ash ponds and landfills. Rural communities are more likely to depend on well water.

Island communities including those along the outer banks of North Carolina and coastal South Carolina are on the frontlines of this storm. Hopefully their residents are heeding evacuation orders. In some cases, they may have to travel long distances to really get out of harm’s way, given the wide swath of destruction this storm is likely to cut—which creates an additional burden for those who may not have the resources. Rural and island communities could be cut off for days if their bridges are washed out or few access roads are flooded.

So as this storm bears down, let’s remember the people of Princeville and Roxboro, the residents of the Gullah/Geechee Nation, those from Nags Head and Kitty Hawk, and from Tybee Island and Kiawah Island, and many other small communities like them that may not make the headlines.

A long road ahead to recovery

Looking ahead, given the terrifying forecast, unfortunately we can expect to see major impacts from this storm. Hopefully, communities in its path will be able to ride out this storm without loss of life.

But experience shows that recovery will take a long time, well after Hurricane Florence drops out of the headlines and is no longer trending on twitter. Communities in Houston and Puerto Rico are still struggling to recover from last year’s catastrophic hurricane season.

And then there are a whole set of additional questions regarding our nation’s response to these types of disasters:

  • Will the nation use this as an opportunity to build back in a more resilient way that takes into account the impacts of climate-driven sea level rise; as well as the increasing intensity of powerful Atlantic storms and increase in heavy rainfall events fueled in part by climate change?
  • Will Congress and the administration adequately fund not just the immediate recovery efforts, but long-term resilient rebuilding, as well as voluntary home buyouts and relocation from high-risk areas?
  • Will the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) budgets, so necessary for disaster preparedness and recovery, be protected as the September 30 deadline for the federal budget approaches?
  • Will Congress protect NOAA’s funding and mandate so it can continue to provide the science we need to anticipate and prepare for these storms?
  • Will the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), so compromised under the Trump administration, do its job to quickly identify and remediate toxic pollution in the aftermath of this storm—or will it put communities at risk as we saw after Harvey?
  • Will Congress and states make targeted resources available for low-income and otherwise marginalized communities, both ahead of and in the aftermath of the storm?

The answers to those questions will provide an important indication of whether we have the resolve to truly take on the long-term challenge of dealing with growing risks of extreme weather and climate disasters in a robust and equitable way—or whether we will just default to responding to these as one-off catastrophes whose burden falls disproportionately on those who can least bear it.

For now, our thoughts are with the many millions of people in the path of this storm and the first responders who are working so hard to protect them. May they all be safe.