Published 7:43 PM EDT Sep 17, 2018
Hurricane Florence has brought immense flooding to many places, but particularly to the low-lying areas of southeastern North Carolina.
One has to wonder what the people of these places did to deserve this. But one also has to wonder what we as a society are thinking.
From the climate change denial prevalent in Washington to a federal flood insurance program that subsidizes development in flood-prone areas, it is almost as if policymakers are conceiving ways to make such storms more destructive.
Even some things that occurred by happenstance — such as the region’s growth as a storage site for pig waste and coal ash — seem like a plot against common sense. North Carolina is second only to Iowa in pork production, and most of its farms are in the very places that are under water, putting billions of pounds of waste held in lagoons at risk of spilling into waterways.
The most glaring example of willful policy malfeasance has to be what is happening in the Trump administration, as it pulls out of the Paris climate accord and softens regulations affecting everything from auto mileage standards to methane emissions.
What planet do these people think they are on? It is certainly not the one in which shrinking polar ice fields are opening new shipping lanes, where rising sea levels in places like south Florida are creating sunny day flooding, and where a warming Atlantic is producing soggier storms like Florence.
Adding to this head-in-the-sand approach on climate change is the misguided program known as the National Flood Insurance Program. Begun in 1968, it has encouraged building in flood-prone areas with premiums that greatly underestimate the risks.
Since Hurricane Katrina broke its bank in 2005, the flood insurance program has run up a tab with the U.S. Treasury of $21 billion. Barring an unexpected, prolonged period of benign weather, this won’t get paid back and taxpayers will be on the hook for the losses. In fact, the deficit is likely to grow larger.
Florence is a massive storm and a huge tragedy for millions of people. It is also the latest example of the march of folly that is making matters worse.
Stay-putters put first responders at risk
It’s as predictable as death and taxes. No matter the immensity of the hurricane bearing down and the urgency behind mandatory evacuation orders — 1.4 million were told to flee Florence’s path — thousands of people in harm’s way still try to ride out the storm.
The result is a desperate whirlwind of water and air rescues — about a thousand and counting, so far, in North Carolina. The stranded are plucked off rooftops or out of flooded entryways by first responders duty bound to find stay-putters and carry them to safety.
People refuse to evacuate for many reasons, researchers say. The disabled may simply be afraid or unable to leave their homes. Others don’t have the means for a hotel or relatives to take them in, or they find community shelters unacceptable. A good many don’t know what to do about their pets.
In a search for answers, communities might explore voucher programs for easing the out-of-pocket costs for temporary relocation and incorporate sanctuaries for evacuated pets into disaster preparedness plans. Congress mandated the pet-friendly approach in 2006, but it has not been widely adopted.
As a storm approaches, evacuees must be provided the best information on where shelters are located and how best to travel there.
Even after any and all precautions, too many residents foolishly believe they can simply tough out a hurricane — in the case of Florence, perhaps because it was downgraded from a Category 4 at its peak to a Category 1 at landfall, despite warnings of catastrophic flooding that proved accurate.
Tough love might be in order. As Hurricane Sandy bore down on New Jersey in 2012, residents who refused to leave were asked to fill out a form with instructions on how to notify next of kin. A good idea. Others were advised to write Social Security numbers on their arms in indelible ink. An even better idea. Why? So recovery crews could ultimately identify their corpses.
Stubborn stay-putters should know their choice is profoundly selfish. They choose not just for themselves, but also for loved ones who might never see them again and, more important, for those who will risk life and limb to rescue them.