Even as flood waters continue to rise in some North Carolina rivers, local and national news sources are beginning to report on the economic and environmental impacts of Hurricane Florence: Thousands of residents displaced and in need of new homes, economic losses “conservatively” estimated at $22 billion, failing coal ash ponds and hog waste lagoons dumping hazardous waste into waterways, thousands of dead and decaying hogs and chickens. It is a grim situation that will require significant resources and resolve from all of us in North Carolina.
Recent coverage highlights how we could have reduced the impact of this hurricane, and how we should plan for future storms. Three facts are indisputable:
- The poor are hardest hit. Low-income families have fewer resources for evacuating. Research shows that lower-income residents tend to have poorer-quality housing and less insurance. Compared to middle-class and wealthy residents, they live closer to industrial and agricultural waste sites, which often spill in storms. The Inner Coastal Plain of NC (between the wealthier regions of the Piedmont and the Tidewater) has an average poverty rate of 30 percent, about twice the state average. As with Hurricanes Floyd and Matthew, these areas and state residents will suffer the longest from Florence.
- Economic impacts in NC would be lower had lawmakers preserved the coastal and floodplain development guidelines that were in place before 2011. In that year, and despite recommendations from a state scientific panel, the Republican-led General Assembly lifted the cap on coastal concrete erosion-control structures. This drove an increase in construction right up to the water’s edge. Even economic and finance experts agree that losses are higher because of rising sea levels and an increase in construction on unstable coastal land.
- Environmental contamination and cleanup costs would be lower if NC lawmakers had not eliminated or weakened regulations on coal ash impoundments, hog waste lagoons, and other environmental protections. Since 2011, when Republicans assumed control of the NCGA, bill after bill has slashed common-sense safeguards and funding for enforcement.
Hurricanes are a fact of life for NC, and a certain level of devastation is unavoidable. But we need leaders who can—and will—act to reduce that loss as much as possible.
We need leaders that recognize the reality of changing weather patterns. Leaders that will protect our coasts and our investments there. Leaders that will consider findings from scientists, the insurance industry, and financial analysts who have all recommended revisions to flood predictions, floodplain assessments and development patterns.
We need leaders who recognize that up to 30 percent of our citizens down east live below the poverty line. Our state has made some progress with hazard mitigation–meaning city, county, state and federal agencies and dollars have worked together to move some citizens out of some flood-prone areas. In the aftermath of Hurricanes Floyd and Matthew, millions of public dollars were spent relocating people in the Inner Coastal Plain to new housing on higher ground. But at the same time, beachfront development increased. Better coordination and a quicker relocation timeline are necessary to save lives and reduce costs.
Finally, we need leaders who will require better management of agricultural and industrial waste in flood-prone areas. (StrongerNC reported extensively on this issue in our April 2018 Toolkit.)
NCGA members voting to eliminate environmental safeguards will tell you that they did so to “encourage growth” and “remove regulatory obstacles.” What they won’t tell you is that they received significant campaign contributions from the pork and fossil fuel industries in exchange. Every bit of quid pro quo “regulatory reform” since 2011 stinks more than the sad, crowded piggies in Duplin County.
All of the tasks outlined here are possible, practical, and cost-effective. But we need lawmakers who put citizens and the future of our state above their own bank accounts.
Early voting in midterm elections begins on October 17. All 120 seats in the NC House and all 50 seats in the NC Senate are up for election, as they are every two years. For the first time in our state’s history, all 170 of these seats are contested. That means at least two candidates are running, so in every single seat we have a choice.
You can find non-partisan, unbiased information on candidates at VoteSmart and Ballotpedia. Check out current legislators’ voting records at the official website of the NC General Assembly. How have your representatives voted on the issues that matter to you?
Please get out and vote. Please encourage your family, your friends, and the guy next to you in the grocery store to vote. This is our best chance to fix past policy mistakes and find a better path for our beloved state.