When it comes to rebuilding after storms, some hard decisions need to be made:
Local officials desperate to restore normalcy to disoriented communities will get to decide how to spend those federal dollars — choices made more consequential, and costly, as sea levels rise and Atlantic storms generate greater surge and rainfall because of climate change.
“Human settlements have been designed in a way that reflects a climate of the past, and this increases the likelihood that disaster-related losses will continue to rise,” said Gavin Smith, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who directs the Coastal Resilience Center of Excellence, a research consortium funded by the Department of Homeland Security. “This also means we need to rethink how and where we build before the storm, as well as how and where we reconstruct public buildings and infrastructure in the aftermath of extreme events.”
First let me state upfront I do not live in an area prone to flooding, even during the worst of deluges. There are a few streams here and there in my community that are prone to overflow, but 15-20 minutes later everything's fine. And I know it's real easy for somebody like me to criticize those who do live in such areas, who resist being relocated. But emotional attachments have absolutely no influence on the science of hydrology, and if that science tells you you're living in the wrong place, you should probably listen closely:
For evidence, visit Princeville, N.C., a town of 2,000 on the Tar River. In 1999, a hurricane named Floyd engorged the river until it spilled over a levee, ruining the town hall, Princeville Elementary School, the police and fire station, the senior center and virtually every other structure.
“I thought, ‘Once in a lifetime,’” said Mayor Bobbie Darnell Jones, who was rescued from his house by helicopter.
Leaders of the town, which was settled by newly emancipated slaves, rejected suggestions from state officials to move the entire community to higher ground. Instead, FEMA spent more than $5 million in public assistance grants to clear debris, build a new town hall and school, repair other buildings and replace fire trucks, a garbage truck, even a riding lawn mower, the agency’s records show.
Seventeen years later, Hurricane Matthew swamped Princeville once again. Repairs are now being made to the school, the fire house, the town hall, the recreation center, the senior center and a museum, at a cost of $2.5 million and counting (the town typically pays a 25 percent share). In mid-September, Princeville narrowly missed its third inundation in two decades, when Florence filled the Tar just shy of flood stage.
I'm glad Princeville dodged a bullet this time. But it's not "if" it will happen again, but "when."