Partnership Journalism•May 27, 2021
Back to the Beach: Nearly 3 years later, Florence survivors still aren’t home
By Elisa Raffa, Fox46 Charlotte and Charles Wohlforth, Climate Central
Three years later, some survivors of Hurricane Florence still aren’t home, but the damage was not evenly distributed. Flooding highlighted disparities, and today the most vulnerable of us continue to be at the highest risk of rising seas that increasingly threaten North Carolina’s coastal region.
Maristine Davis, a resident of the Beaufort area, can still see the damage outside her window. She and her husband have been unable to live in their home since Florence hit in September of 2018.
“My heart was overflooded,” Davis said. “I was like, Lord, what am I going to do? The Lord spoke to me and He said, ‘Don’t stress, you will be blessed.’”
For many low-income coastal residents, Florence was a long-term disaster they are still recovering from. For seniors—especially the 13 percent in North Carolina who are also low-income—the impact of flooding is even more challenging, as age adds issues of mobility and security to the hazards from storm.
And experts say these problems are getting worse as hurricanes grow stronger and sea level rises.
Florence tracked from east to west, making landfall just north of Wilmington. It drenched the state over three days with more than 30 inches of rain. The slow speed of the storm exacerbated the flooding and spread it all over the region, turning roads into rivers.
Florence was the wettest tropical storm ever recorded in the Carolinas.
Davis recalls the impact of the flooding after a 13-foot storm surge wiped away homes. The night of the hurricane, she had to stay overnight at the hospital where she works, and reached her husband by telephone.
“I asked him, ‘Did we get any damage? He said, ‘I’ve got to go to the house and check everything out when everything calms down,’” she recalled. “Sure enough, he called and he said, ‘Yep, I think we got it this time.’”
The storm left behind more than $16 billion dollars of damage across North Carolina. Forty-two people died, more than 5,000 were rescued from flood waters, and 74,000 structures were flooded.
Davis, who has lived in Beaufort since the 1970s, said the water had never come so high.
“This was the very first time that we got water, that much water in our house,” she said. “It got in my cabinets, my kitchen cabinets, my bathroom cabinets, everything just was flooded.”
The house has not been habitable since.
Experts say hurricanes hit low-income residents hard because they often lack insurance or financial resources for quick recovery, and because their homes may be less resilient to storms. In North Carolina, being older adds to the vulnerability.
Terri Lewis Lawrence came home after Florence to find six to eight inches of water in the house where she had lived since childhood. Over a long life in North Carolina, it was the first time water had ever come so high.
“It would threaten to almost come in the house a few times, but it never came in, since the house has been built,” she said. “Almost 70 years it had never come in the house.”
Hurricane Florence hit her home hard.
“The floors were just destroyed,” Lawrence said. “When you pulled the carpet up, the hardwood floors under it were buckled. Everything had to be ripped out at that point.”
Climate change has worsened hurricane flooding two ways. Warming ocean waters are spawning more severe storms, and the water itself has risen along North Carolina’s shores—about 9 inches since 1953 in Beaufort, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Climate Central projects it will rise another foot in Wilmington by 2050.
To prevent future flooding, Lawrence and Davis have both added 10 feet of elevation to their homes. That’s a common response to hurricanes and sea-level rise on the Carolina coast, as homeowners lift their foundations above potential waves. But this solution can be difficult for seniors, both because of the cost—around $70,000 for Lawrence’s home—and because the extra stairs make it difficult for elders to get to their front doors.
Lawrence has trouble with her knees and back and couldn’t manage the additional steps after her house was raised. The cost of adding a lift: an additional $10,000 to $30,000.
Beaufort Mayor Rett Newton said Florence recovery remains a major issue more than two years later, especially for older residents like Lawrence.
“We know we have a very senior population but when they get affected by a storm they may not have the capacity to recover,” Newton said. “They’ve got very limited resources, they’ve got very limited mobility.”
Newton said Florence inflicted disproportionate hardship on the poor and seniors—disparities that may have gone unnoticed before the disaster.
“That divide got exposed by Hurricane Florence, it got widened by Hurricane Dorian, and it’s been deepened by the pandemic,” Newton said.
Today, tarps still flap in the breeze, with nearly 500 families still displaced in Cartaret County alone. But while recovery lags for some, advocates also call for plans to keep sea level rise from creating more storm refugees in the future.
Rev. Robbie Phillips, a Presbyterian minister, helps lead the Carterat Long-Term Recovery Alliance, a group was born out of Florence devastation that is still working on disaster relief. She said it may be time for people to move out of threatened areas.
“There’s going to be some people that are going to be mad that I’m going to make this comment, but I’m going to be honest with you. None of these homes in this area should have ever been built here,” Phillips said. “Stop building in these areas, let’s build workforce housing that is in a good safe place.”
Phillips has seen unequal devastation from Florence and wants vulnerable populations protected next time.
“The poor are disproportionately impacted, the elderly, disabled, lower income families, families with children in the homes are going to be more impacted by this than people on the barrier islands,” she said.
The financial threat of climate change and sea level rise can challenge homeowners even when storm winds are not blowing. Rising waters have forced the Federal Emergency Management Agency to revise flood zone maps to account for wetter hurricanes and higher seas, accounting for several feet of higher water. That drives up flood insurance—with reports in North Carolina of premiums doubling, tripling or even quadrupling.
For low-income residents—including seniors—flood-prone land is expensive to insure, but cheap to buy. The low cost lures residents back, but without insurance. For seniors who may own relatively valuable old family homes but do not owe money on mortgages, all of their assets may be tied up in a house that is both at risk and uninsured.
Water is the most severe threat from coastal storms, according to Dr. Rich Luettich, a coastal oceanographer at the University of North Carolina, and one of the nation’s top storm surge experts.
“Water does three things: it causes the most damage, it kills the most people, and it takes the longest to recover from, and yet it’s often times what we ignore,” Luettich said.
And the threat is getting worse, not better.
“There’s no doubt that the last 50 years and the next 50 years will be very different, and climate change is the primary driver of that,” Luettich said. “Water starts to come up inch by inch and feet over decades, then all of a sudden you lost your safety zone, you lost your starting point, so the water is at your doorstep much more quickly.”
In North Carolina, flat, coastal lands allow rising seas to bring storm surges far inland. Eventually, those coastal areas may become too dangerous for homes. Local officials are beginning to take that into account.
“I do not want to have to retreat, but if we don’t reverse the effects of climate change, that’s going to be the option,” Mayor Newton said.
Slashing carbon emissions would slow warming and the rise of the seas, though so much pollution has already built up in the atmosphere that they’re bound to continue to rise. In the meantime, North Carolina residents are adapting to rising sea levels, even as they recover from intensifying storms.
Davis got help with her home and new furniture, steps that are bringing coastal communities a sense of hope.
“I’m ready to get in my house,” she said. “I always say there’s no place like home.”
This segment and story were produced through a partnership between Fox46 and Climate Central. Elisa Raffa is a meteorologist with FOX46. Charles Wohlforth is a science writer and author working with Climate Central.