Officials in Charleston, South Carolina are clear that climate change poses an existential threat. They are working on plans to build a $1.1 billion seawall that would protect historic homes from increasingly powerful hurricanes that have repeatedly threatened the booming city. And in his State of the City address this year, Mayor John Tecklenburg said Charleston must “rezone every square inch of our city” to end development in flood-prone areas.
More Americans head for hurricanes as climate change risks rise
But even as it works to fortify itself, Charleston — which was battered by wind and rain from Hurricane Ian on Friday — has green plans for a more than 9,000-acre residential and commercial development that officials say environmentalists, would locate about half of its dwellings in a flood plain.
The dilemma facing Charleston, whose population grew 25% from 2010 to 2020, is found throughout the Southeast. Many cities and counties in the region are grappling with the fact that rapid development has made them more vulnerable to hurricanes, storms and flooding caused by rising sea levels. The region has grown rapidly, although unevenly over the past decade and is expected to add millions more in the decades to come. As wetlands and forests have given way to homes and hotels, there are many more properties – and millions more people – directly at risk.
Maps show how millions moved in Hurricane Ian’s path
In Florida, the extent of the destruction caused by Ian, which first made landfall in the United States near Fort Myers as a Category 4 storm, is still unclear. But it is expected to be more devastating than many comparable storms due to its size and everything that has been built in its path. From 1970 to 2020, according to census records, the Cape Coral-Fort Myers area has grown an astonishing 623%, to over 760,000 people.
Ian landed in Florida during one of the strongest storms to ever hit the state, bringing storm surge over 12 feet to Fort Myers and knocking out power to more than 2 million people. The southwest suffered widespread destruction, with houses washed away from their foundations, bridges destroyed and massive flooding.
From 2010 to 2020, according to census records, the two fastest growing metropolitan areas in the United States were The Villages, a retirement community in Florida, and Myrtle Beach, SC During the same period, the rate population growth in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Tennessee exceeded the national average while other states like West Virginia and Mississippi saw declines. Florida’s population grew at an astonishing rate during this decade, adding more than 2.7 million people.
Joseph Von Nessen, an economist at the University of South Carolina, said the majority of new Southeast residents come from New England. Many are retirees attracted by the lower cost of living, mild winters and other charms of the region. Young workers are also settling in the region, attracted by the newly created manufacturing jobs.
“Severe weather is certainly a cost that people consider, but based on the data, those benefits, at least for many, seem to clearly outweigh the costs,” Von Nessen said. Census projections suggest the Southeast will experience the largest population gains over the next two decades, through 2040.
These demographic trends increase the likelihood that more Americans will be trapped in a costly cycle of floods and repairs, experts said.
Photos: Ian leaves a path of destruction
In 2019, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that hurricanes and tropical storms caused about $54 billion, on average, in annual damage in the United States. The report notes that without policy changes limiting greenhouse gas emissions and increasing the number of properties covered by flood insurance, “storm-related costs are likely to increase in the future due to the change climate change and increased development in at-risk areas”.
Florida’s insurance woes could further aggravate Ian’s economic anger
Among scientists, there is a broad consensus that climate change is enhancing hurricanes, causing storms to intensify rapidly before making landfall. Multiple factors are contributing to this trend, including: unusually warm sea surface temperatures, which are fueling higher wind speeds. On top of that, sea level rise compounds the effects of a normal storm surge. In the United States, the result has been an unprecedented number of storms rated Category 4 or higher hitting coastal communities in recent years.
Some climate advocates worry that despite the vagaries, newcomers to the South East are unaware of the risks they will face.
Real estate agents are not required to disclose the flood history of the properties they sell and finding this information can be difficult. Additionally, many of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s flood maps are decades out of date and do not account for sea level rise or flooding from sudden rainstorms. Earlier this year, the agency announced it was considering reforming these policies, as well as its flood insurance program, but has yet to release a proposal.
“If every real estate agent were required to say to people, ‘You should know that during the life of your mortgage, your house will flood at least once, maybe twice,’ I think people would say, ‘Whoa, what said Rob Moore, senior policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group. “But because of the political failures in state capitols and in Washington, we’ve made it extremely difficult for people to not just find this information, but even tell people about it.”
In response to the growing threat of climate change, some cities in the Southeast have started taking precautions.
In South Florida, cities have adopted stricter building codes that require the use of building materials that can withstand high winds. Miami officials are focusing on raising roads and homes to protect them from rising sea levels and encourage inland development away from low-lying areas.
In Norfolk, where tidal flooding regularly makes roads impassable, the effects of climate change along the more than 200-mile coastline cannot be ignored. Authorities revised zoning regulations in 2018 to steer development higher up town. They have adopted a rating system that rates proposed projects on their ability to withstand floods and other hazards. The city also plans to protect its downtown area by building a system of storm barriers, levees and pumping stations.
But these types of projects are still relatively rare, and so far most have not attempted to curb development.
Gavin Smith, a disaster resilience expert at North Carolina State University, said poorer cities, especially those whose tax base has already been eroded by cascading disasters, have struggled to muster demands. federal grants to strengthen fragile infrastructure. Residents interested in federal buyouts sometimes have to wait years for FEMA approval. And many communities are reluctant to act.
With the Democrats’ Cut Inflation Act, which President Biden signed into law last month, which is expected to send billions of dollars to coastal states for climate projects, “there is a possibility,” Smith said. “Time will tell if this is unrealized potential or if there will be a bigger shift.”
In Charleston, climate advocates sued the US Army Corps of Engineers in federal court in August, challenging its issuance of a permit that would allow construction of the 9,000-acre development to go ahead.
Chris DeScherer, an attorney with the Charleston office of the Southern Environmental Law Center, a party to the lawsuit, said the stark contrast between city officials’ public acknowledgment of flood risk and their willingness to approve development in a place vulnerable demonstrates one of the city’s main problems. challenges: how to adapt to climate change while welcoming an influx of new residents.
“We don’t think Charleston has to stop growing, we just have to be smarter about it,” DeScherer said. “It makes no sense to put another small town in the floodplain. Are we going to put a dike around this in a few years? »
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