What we learned from Hurrricane Florence

Scientists warn that Florence was not just a storm for the history books. It is a glimpse into the future of hurricanes with climate change. Some thoughts what we need to learn from several experts.

Hurricane Article Scientists warn that Florence was not just a storm for the history books. It is a glimpse into the future of hurricanes with climate change. Some thoughts what we need to learn from several experts.

Reide Corbett, Ph.D., director of the Coastal Studies Institute

With any of these major events, these impactful events, I think they provide a window into what the future might be, so we need to take that opportunity to see where we are most vulnerable, where we see the weak points in our resilience as we move forward in a time of climate change. North Carolina has dealt with hurricanes in the past but these storms are different. The science says we’ve had 50% more rain in these storms that we got in storms 10-20 years ago. That’s a function of a warmer ocean, that’s a function of a changing climate. These things are additive, we can’t think about these things individually because these changes are leading to different storms than we’ve had in the past; different patterns of rainfall, increasing energy waves and so we have to think about where that is coming from. “Certainly business as usual isn’t going to get us anywhere; the storms that we are having today are different than storms 20 years ago, and so we can’t take the same approach that we did 20 years ago. It’s not going to do us any good to we can’t just think about what is going to happen today, we have to think about 10 years down the road. And we have to think about an environment that is leading to storms like Florence. Florence is a historic storm, but just because it is historic today doesn’t mean it will be historic in ten years.

Rear Admiral David Titley, USN (RET) director, Center for Solutions to Weather & Climate Risk, Penn State University

We’re seeing these storms come in and they are bigger, wetter, they tend to be slower and they are taking different tracks. They might be stronger, but to be honest that is what we are least confident about is whether they will have higher winds. But we are very confident they will be wetter, very confident that whatever storm surge comes in will be from higher baselines

Martin Doyle, Ph.D., director of Water Policy Program., Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, Duke University 

The bigger problem is we have more people living in areas that are hazardous. That’s really the big driver of why these storms are so devastating, because where people live and where our structures are makes us so much more sensitive to these storms than we have been in the past. We’re also finding that we’ve moved increasingly close to being right on the edge of these problematic areas. In other words, population density is quite high right at the edge of the one hundred year flood plane. So if we tell people that this is an area where you shouldn’t move because it is prone to flooding, people move right to the edge of it. And that happens in the flood plains of rivers as well as along coastlines. That practice really is the opposite of resilience and that leaves us very vulnerable to the 150-year flood But what Hurricane Florence has reminded us is that all of the important planning and design that communities do; including land use, infrastructure and emergency response, is all based on data from the past. For example: here are the areas that have flooded in the past, here’s where power has been knocked out in the past. Scientists say Hurricane Florence should be a lesson on why that type of planning must change. One of the things I hope people realize about climate change forecasting and sea level rise is that the forecasting and predicting has a lot of uncertainty built into it. That’s because we simply don’t know what effects storms may bring because conditions are changing and so the level of uncertainty is getting worse and worse. That means that moving to an area that is perceived to be on the edge of a hazardous area is a lot less known than in the past. So the best-case scenario is you are okay and the worst case is that you are not.

Gavin Smith, Ph.D., director, Deptartment of Homeland Security Coastal Resilience, Center of Excellence & Research, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

The idea of looking into the past and into past hazard history to predict the future has to change. That means we have to develop climate and weather forcasting and hurricane models that deal with deep uncertainty. One way to deal with that and link it to post disaster recovery is to look at the standard model of buying out homes in the 100-year flood plain and then to take a broader look and perhaps consider buying out homes in the 500 year flood plain. That would help to account for this uncertainty.”

Elizabeth Albright, Ph.D., assistant professor, Environmental Science and Policy Methods, Nicholas School of the Environment, Duke University

There’s a tension between fast recovery, in which people want their lives to be back to normal as quickly as possible; versus a long more thoughtful process in which things may not be back to normal in a month because a community needs to take some time and think about how to rebuild a city. So there’s a tension between build back and build back more resiliently and that is a constant problem when planning for a hurricane in the future especially when you don’t know how climate change may affect what happens in a hurricane.

Rear Admiral Ann Phillips, USN (RET), Consultant, Center for Climate & Security

We want to push away the bad and we want to look past that. It’s not that we are ignoring anything; we know it was bad and we know we should prepare for that but we want to think about other things. We also need to recognize that we are very resistant to change. We want things to be the way they were and that’s very difficult to overcome.