In Harm's Way Did NC Learn Enough From Fran and Floyd?
If nothing else, North Carolinians ought to have learned a few facts of life from the devastating hurricanes that have struck our state, particularly Fran in 1996 and Floyd in 1999. One is that hurricanes are powerful forces that can cause great damage to anything in their path. Another is that housing or other structures built in low-lying areas may survive wind damage only to be flooded and perhaps ruined when rivers overflow.
"The silver lining of this disaster, if there is one, is that we have the change to dramatically reduce the number of people and structures located in flood-prone areas," says John Copenhaver of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Up to 8.000 Eastern North Carolina homes were made uninhabitable by the flooding from Hurricane Floyd and may be purchased under a federal buyout program. That's a fraction of the damaged homes; officials say the floods destroyed 7,000 and left 17,000 uninhabitable. At least 79 swine farms in low-lying areas have applied for a buyout under the program that would remove structures and open-air hog waste cesspools from the floodplain.
Buying those farms and houses, and preventing their replacement in the floodplain may make sense, given the wide-scale flooding that scientists believe was worsened by increasing development in many areas. But there is also disturbing evidence that many homeowners, developers and local officials are not getting the message. They plan to continue developing in the 100-year flood plains and to rebuild or repair homes that were severely damaged by flooding.
Even in the best light, that's an example of faith over fact. If three major floods in four years don't send a warning, what will? The most obvious example of ignoring facts is the rebuilding of a dike around part of Princeville, a historic African-American community across the river from Tarboro. Many residents wanted to take a buyout, but more wanted to stay because of the powerful pull of what Princeville represents. One day Princeville is likely to flood again.
Other low-lying areas will be developed as well. As The News & Observer of Raleigh reported this week, some local governments are allowing new homes to be built in 100-year floodplains despite the great risk of future flooding. And while some cities like Kinston are pursuing smarter growth policies, places such as new Hanover and Pitt counties and Rocky Mount have encountered pressure from developers to allow building in floodplains. Without strict ordinances controlling building in those areas, development will proceed, hastening the return of days like those last fall when the world wondered why so many Eastern North Carolina homes and businesses were underwater.
In the rest of North Carolina, urban sprawl has created a demand for smart growth policies that restrict development to appropriate area and set aside open areas. In Easter North Carolina, prudence demands smart growth policies to control building or rebuilding in low lying areas. If we haven't learned that, we've learned nothing.