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The Hurricane Damage That Didn’t Have to Happen

Years of Republican rule in North Carolina left the state vulnerable to the predictable impacts of a storm like Florence.

Sean Rayford/Getty Images

Several areas of southeastern North Carolina are still facing dangerous conditions from Hurricane Florence, the catastrophically wet storm that crawled over the state more than a week ago. But the Outer Banks are open for business. Miraculously, the state’s 18 highly developed, low-lying barrier islands were spared Florence’s worst effects; preliminary reports showed only a few million dollars in damage. “We were really blessed on this one,” resident Matt Paulson told the local Fox affiliate.

The state’s Republican politicians were blessed, too. Because if Florence had hit the barrier islands directly, they would have been blamed for making the damage far worse than it had to be. In 2012, North Carolina’s Republican-controlled legislature passed a law allowing developers to ignore the latest climate science showing that sea-level rise would essentially drown the islands by the century’s end. As a result, according to The Washington Post, “Billions continue to be invested in homes and condos on low-lying land,” as well as bridges and roads.

When a powerful hurricane like Florence does target the Outer Banks in the future, as one inevitably will, lawmakers will have to account for the preventable devastation their climate law engendered. For now, though, they only have to grapple with the not-insignificant damage from Florence—some of which can also be tied to state lawmakers’ decisions in recent years.

One of the biggest concerns as Florence approached the mainland was that floodwaters would inundate coal ash pits, which contain the metallic waste left over from burning coal. At least three spills have been reported in North Carolina thus far. There’s an ongoing dispute over how much has spilled, because floodwater has still not receded in many areas. But residents living near these ash pits must now worry about exposure to toxins, along with whatever other Florence-related damage they’re already dealing with.

Florence brought record-breaking rainfall and catastrophic flooding to South Carolina, too, but residents there aren’t facing the same problems with the state’s ash pits. Back in 2013, power utilities started removing the waste from the pits alongside coal-fired power plants. The removals were a response to legal challenges from environmental groups over the risks the substance posed to the surrounding community, particularly during flooding events. “Today, every unlined coal ash lagoon in South Carolina has either been excavated, is being excavated or is scheduled to be excavated for transportation to dry, lined landfills or for use in recycling,” according to The Post and Courier.

North Carolina’s power utility, Duke Energy, responded to these lawsuits differently. “They spent years lobbying to try to avoid this litigation,” said Frank Holleman, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center who fought Duke in court. Duke also sought help from North Carolina’s Republican political leaders, donating hundreds of thousands to their campaigns and political committees—particularly during “key moments in state coal ash regulation,” one report noted. In turn, the state’s legislature has often assisted the company in delaying excavation of coal ash storage sites.

Republican lawmakers in North Carolina became more reluctant to allow Duke to delay excavation after one of the company’s pits spilled a massive amount of waste into the Dan River in 2014. The legislature passed requirements for coal ash cleanup and created an independent commission to oversee the work. But then-Governor Pat McCrory, a Republican who had worked at Duke Energy for 28 years, lent a hand to his former employer by shutting down the commission in 2016.

North Carolina still has at least 13 unlined pits filled with millions of tons of coal ash, which risk overflowing or breaching during big rainfall or flooding events. But South Carolina’s present-day reality shows that “this is a totally unnecessary risk,” Holleman said. “The ash does not have to be placed in a pit near a river.”

Hog farming is also a major industry in North Carolina, and Hurricane Florence caused dozens of man-made ponds filled with pig feces to overflow. Last week, The New York Times reported that “at least 110 lagoons in the state have either released pig waste into the environment or are at imminent risk of doing so.” This was expected: It had happened as recently as 2016, due to Hurricane Matthew, and more devastatingly with Hurricane Floyd in 1999.

North Carolina does not allow newly built industrial hog farms to store urine and feces from their animals in these literal cesspools. But existing farms are still allowed to, despite what happened during Matthew and Floyd. “Environmentally superior technologies exist to handle animal waste, such as the Terra Blue technology, which separates liquid and solid waste, composting the solids,” wrote Rick Dove, a founder of the Waterkeeper Alliance, in a recent Washington Post op-ed. “But the industry has dragged its feet on upgrading its waste management; thanks to friends of industrial agriculture in North Carolina’s legislature, such changes aren’t required by law.”

North Carolina Republicans’ climate myopia, and the consequences of it, are especially instructive given the Republican control of Washington. The Trump administration is ignoring the threat of sea-level-rise on development; last year, he rescinded an Obama-era executive order urging federal agencies to consider climate science when rebuilding damaged infrastructure. His Environmental Protection Agency is in the process of loosening several regulations related to coal ash storage. And his chosen leader of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue, said it was “despicable” that a pork company had been made to pay $50 million to neighbors whose health was affected by manure lagoons.

In theory, these policies are supposed to benefit the economy. It’s true: Ignoring climate science is a boon for real estate developers, while lenient waste rules are a gift to agriculture and coal industries. But when disasters like Florence strike, these policies are economically catastrophic, as communities are left with an even bigger mess to clean up. Politically, the consequences are less clear. Do North Carolinians regret electing so many politicians who knowingly exposed the state to such predictable disasters? And will we be asking this question about all American voters in the years to come?