Post-Florence: Where do we go from here?

Robert Simmons, pictured above, was a New Bern resident who lost most of his belongings in the storm. He is seen here evacuating with his kitten named Survivor, leaving his father who chose to stay behind. Robert is one of many New Bern residents whose lives were devastated by Hurricane Florence, which was responsible for more than $100 million damages estimated by September 23rd.1

North Carolina’s vulnerable populations – especially migrant workers, African American communities, and rural residents of inland towns – are bearing the greatest burden from the impacts of Hurricane Florence. Many are still recovering from Hurricane Matthew, which made landfall in October 2016. Now they face life-altering questions: rebuild and prepare for the next storm, or move? Many North Carolinians have faced this question before and if they choose to stay this time, they must grapple with how to rebuild despite future threats of more, and potentially stronger, storms and floods.

Reports thus far have solidified Florence’s place as one of the deadliest hurricanes to impact the Carolinas, with greater financial losses than Hurricanes Matthew (2016) and Floyd (1999) combined.2 As residents and local governments move forward toward resilience and recovery, each affected jurisdiction will need to reconcile the interdisciplinary nature of natural hazard mitigation as well as the increasing frequency and scale of disasters.

Hurricane Florence by the Numbers

On October 10th, the Office of the Governor of North Carolina issued a report that estimated Hurricane Florence caused a total of $13 billion in damages. There were 41 deaths as of November 6th, including 2 suicides. Most deaths were car-related, including drowning from being trapped in a vehicle and motor vehicle accidents during the storm.3 At its peak, the storm was as wide as the state of North Carolina and hovered over the state for six days, causing over one million to lose power. At its worst, it was classified as a Category 4 hurricane. The Office of the Governor reported that approximately 2.6 million people, or one in four North Carolinians live in one of the 28 counties designated by FEMA as eligible for disaster assistance.

Business lost around $3.9 billion. By far the greatest number of businesses (49,000) were impacted by wind damage, although 3,800 private businesses also incurred water damage. Over one-quarter of North Carolina households were affected, sustaining an estimated $3.4 billion in damages. In addition to the human impact, the agricultural industry incurred $2.4 billion in losses, over $1 billion of which was from destroyed crops and livestock, with the rest attributed to damage to buildings, equipment, and infrastructure.2

Caption: Hurricane Florence is by far the most damaging hurricane to hit North Carolina in the past two decades. Credit: The Office of the Governor

The Governor’s Office of North Carolina has identified a gap of $7.1 billion in funds that will need to be met in order to make a full recovery. The state has already received $2.3 billion from FEMA and Community Development Block Grants. After the gap was identified, FEMA began reviewing another 13 North Carolina counties to determine eligibility for aid. While private insurance funds are difficult to tally at this stage, the estimates are at around $3.3 billion.

Dr. Jennifer Horney, Professor and Founding Director of the Program in Epidemiology and Core Faculty at the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware, explained that community engagement and neighborhood buy-in are essential to the success of local hazard mitigation plans. She gave the example that after Katrina, there was a large increase in those who bought flood insurance. However, after only two to three years, most had let the policy lapse. According to the Associated Press, most homes in high risk areas are not covered by flood insurance. In Broward County, Florida, only 13 percent of homeowners have flood insurance. In Houston and Harris County, Texas, 28 percent of homeowners are enrolled. In New Orleans, Louisiana, 46 percent are covered by flood insurance.4 All three of these locations have experienced devastating floods as a result of hurricanes in recent history.

“People are thinking that if we redevelop in a smart way, we can avoid these problems,” Dr. Horney said. “But the action that is needed is at all levels, from community to global. We need federal or even international efforts to address global issues like climate change.”

Climate Change: Requiring Interdisciplinary Action

From the devastating conclusions of IPCC’s most recent report on climate change, we can only expect more devastating storms in our future.

“Hurricane Harvey’s rainfall was described as unprecedented and catastrophic. However, two storms in 2018 -Hawaii’s Hurricane Lane and Florence – were also top 10 storms in terms of the amount of rainfall, making Harvey seems like it wasn’t so unprecedented,” Dr. Horney said. “The idea that these storms are getting stronger and wetter is really taking hold this year.”

Municipalities have drafted local hazard mitigation plans, local agencies have created communication strategies for public outreach, and state governments have emergency preparedness plans. What else can we as planners do in the face of ever-growing threat of natural hazards? Is there a way for North Carolina to be more proactive rather than reactive? Dr. Horney notes that while we’ve done the work, there are still major milestones to reach.

“North Carolina is in a way a model – coastal jurisdictions have already had mandates for recovery plans. They’re ahead of many states,” she clarified. “But now we have to do the harder stuff – in planning language, the action-oriented things.” This part won’t be easy, however; these are the plans that required the most consensus, funding, and interdisciplinary work. Dr. Horney pointed out that “of all the ones you listed in your hazard mitigation plan, you need to look at the ones that require political capital, neighborhood engagement, and large amounts of resources such as funding. Anything else won’t be good enough for the storms like Harvey and Florence.”

Dr. Horney has been working in Sunnyside, a neighborhood in southeast Houston with a population that is 98% African American. During Harvey, 75% of the areas that flooded were not designated as in the 100-year floodplain. This calls attention to the dire need to update floodplain maps, bolster data sources, and reconsider the models that predict floods.

“Subsidence, impervious surfaces, seawater intrusion, drought, excessive heat, changes in patterns of precipitation all have an effect,” Dr. Horney said. According to the State’s Division of Water Resources, North Carolina has been in dryer than normal conditions more than half of the weeks over the last ten years. Most of the IPCC predictions show that while the total amount of rain we will receive per year won’t change, more rain will fall in fewer events, increasing the risks of flooding. In addition, most residents aren’t aware if their home is in the floodplain and what that entails during major events. These factors all contribute to the current inaccuracy of flood plain mappings that form the basis of our exposure, risk, and damage projections.

Increasing Risks with Decreasing Resources

The state’s emergency funding gap becomes more salient when considering the effects of budget cuts for local agencies, such as health departments, who are forced to decrease disaster-related services.

“Local jurisdictions have to integrate their network of plans, not just across land use, economic development, and hazard mitigation planning, but also incorporate public health and other agencies,” Dr. Horney stated, emphasizing the importance of the interdisciplinary approach. “What I’ve seen change over the past few years is the interest in the environmental health impact of disasters.” Although quantifying the exposures and impacts of hazards is challenging, environmental health is an increasing focus of disaster management and recovery. Examples include Hurricane Harvey and post-storm spills, and North Carolina’s experience with flooded coal ash ponds and hog farms.

While the CDC’s Public Health Emergency Preparedness Cooperative Agreement Program has focused on bolstering LHDs since September 11, 2001, more recently reductions in operating budgets have limited public health agency’s ability to respond to both major disasters and smaller events, such as clusters of infectious diseases or outbreaks of foodborne illnesses. In the first two weeks following Hurricane Florence, North Carolina’s LHDs were in charge of operating shelters. As soon as the shelters close, they are “inundated with the need to do vector control without any break” all while continuing to provide essential public health services.

“We are doing the same work in public health with the same methods, but with a reduced capacity – the funding cuts really hit home during a disaster because you have to maintain the basic provisions of a health department- like vaccinating babies-but there is no surge capacity in the system to handle [something like Hurricane Florence],” Dr. Horney explained.

Our Future: More Hurricanes Like Florence

With our current political polarization around climate change, it’s difficult to picture aggressive actions taking place to mitigate the effects of storms following Hurricane Florence. In other cities in the United States, disastrous events didn’t always motivate action for preemptive solutions.

“From my experience with Harvey in Houston, people are just coming to the point where they see it as a ‘cost of doing business,’ so to speak,” explained Dr. Horney. Houston has experienced three 500-year floods in just a few years. “There was some qualitative research done on the Texas Gulf Coast where the refineries are after Hurricane Harvey. Residents of this area typically make no connection between the oil and gas industry and the flooding and the contamination from Hurricane Harvey because it’s their livelihood and their tradition. It’s a weird dichotomy to wrap our heads around sometimes.”

Will we experience the same with Florence? Dr. Horney predicted that only time will tell.

“The voices have to come from all different parts – it can’t just be research and academia. It’s going to take a lot of people working together who haven’t worked together before; that’s the only way we are going to move the needle on this.”

Dr. Jennifer Horney is Professor and Founding Director of the Program in Epidemiology and Core Faculty at the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware. Dr. Horney received her Ph.D. and MPH from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Dr. Horney’s research focuses on measuring the health impacts of disasters, as well as the linkages between disaster planning and household actions related to preparedness, response, and recovery. She currently leads research projects funded by the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences, National Science Foundation, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Academies of Sciences, the Department of Homeland Security and other federal, state, and local agencies. Dr. Horney was a member of a team of public health practitioners who responded to Hurricanes Isabel, Charley, Katrina, Wilma, Irene, and Harvey where she conducted rapid assessments of disaster impact on the public health of individuals and communities. She has also provided technical assistance to public health agencies globally around disasters, infectious disease outbreaks, and pandemic influenza planning and response.

About the Author: Emily Paul is a first-year master’s student seeking dual degrees from the Department of City and Regional Planning and the Gillings School of Public Health. Her research interests involve how the built environment can address social justice issues and the impact of climate change and the environment on health.  Prior to UNC, Emily earned her bachelor’s degree in urban & environmental planning and Spanish at the University of Virginia.

  1. Bennett, Abbie. 2018. “New Bern Is Counting up the Damage from Hurricane Florence. It’s at $100 Million so Far.” The News & Observer, September 23, 2018. https://www.newsobserver.com/news/local/article218889660.html.
  2. The Office of the Governor of North Carolina. Hurricane Florence Recovery Recommendations. Governor Roy Cooper. October 10, 2018. Raleigh, North Carolina, 2018.
  3. Associated Press. 2018. “Death Toll Rises from Hurricane Florence.” WITN, November 5, 2018. https://www.witn.com/content/news/Death-toll-rises-from-Hurricane-Florence-499726881.html.
  4. Associated Press. 2017. “Fewer U.S. Coastal Property Owners Have Flood Insurance,” September 1, 2017. https://www.nola.com/business/index.ssf/2017/09/fewer_us_coastal_property_owne.html.