Costs up with more beach properties in harm’s way
In 1960, roughly 845,000 people lived in the 24 counties along the Carolina coast.
By 2000, the number was more than 1.5 million as the demand for beach living and ocean views continued to rise.
The coastal population today tops 2 million.
The development boom persisted despite warnings that global warming would continue to raise sea levels and could increase the intensity of storms.
As in many places with strong Republican traditions, the issue of climate change remains highly contentious in North and South Carolina.
But you don’t have to trust climate-change science to see the obvious: With more development along the coast, there is more to destroy when a hurricane strikes.
“We know that the cost of hurricanes have been rising over time and that’s largely due to coastal development,” said Christy Dahl, a senior climate scientist at the nonprofit Union of Concerned Scientists. “We simply have more stuff and more property in harm’s way.”
Residents of the Carolina coast are now confronting that reality as Hurricane Florence — now a tropical storm — bears down on their billions of dollars in real estate. All they can do now is hope that that it shows them some mercy.
Scientists say that it is difficult to attribute any given storm or other extreme weather event to climate change. There were powerful hurricanes before the industrial age started pumping carbon and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
Rising ocean temperatures give hurricanes more power. A warming atmosphere gives hurricanes more moisture. And rising sea levels mean stronger storm surges and more flooding.
“We won’t necessarily see more hurricanes but we would expect them to become stronger,” Dahl said.
That is unless the world drastically reduces emissions, an unlikely prospect given the current state of global politics and economics.
In the meantime, researchers say that a good share of future damage could be averted with better development and land-use policies.
Roger A. Pielke, professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado, has studied hurricane damages dating back decades and concluded that the rising toll has less to do with the power of those storms than with the increasing amount of development in their path.
“The fact that there’s more people and property and wealth is why damage increases,” he said.
One of the problems is that in the U.S., land-use policy is usually decided locally, making a broader strategy difficult to impose.
Dahl said Hurricane Harvey was especially devastating because rapid development in the Houston area had changed the character of the land in a way that provided limited escape paths for the record rainfall that accompanied the 2017 storm.
“It went from a natural landscape to having imperfect surfaces like concrete and asphalt,” she said.
The result was widespread flooding.
“We need to be thinking about two things: where we are developing and ensuring we are not putting more people and property in high risk zones,” Dahl said.
North Carolina flouted that advice.
In 2009, the state’s Coastal Resources Commission contacted scientists to report on sea-level rise.
The scientists published a report the next year projecting that by 2100 the sea would rise by at least 39 inches.
That was unwelcome news during a development boom that was pumping billions of dollars into coastal projects. Skeptical of the science and beholden to the interests of developers, the Republican-dominated state legislature rejected the study.
In 2012, legislators passed a law ordering local agencies to ignore consideration of sea-level rise when making development policies for at least the next four years.
As far back as August 2011 when Hurricane Irene hit, abandoned beach-front houses are affected in Nags Head, N.C.