Years-Long Debate Over Sea Level Rise And Real Estate In N.C. Is Getting A Wake-Up From Hurricane Florence
After Hurricane Florence came roaring through New Bern, North Carolina, more than 4 feet of water was left in Bob Emory’s garage. He spent part of last week sifting through wet items to determine if anything was salvageable.
“Relative to other folks, we did OK,” he said.
On the river in Morehead City, North Carolina, John Droz also had water in his house and yard left behind by the storm surge. Shingles were missing and neighbors had downed trees.
“It isn’t good, but what can I say? We’ve been through seven hurricanes,” he said.
Only about 35 miles apart, both men were in the same boat, picking up pieces the hurricane left behind. It was quite a contrast from the years-long debate over sea level rise that at times pitted the men against each other and led to the often-ridiculed NC HB 819 law, enacted in 2012, that has been painted as a battle between sea level rise predictions and development.
In 2010, Emory was the head of the Coastal Resources Commission when the group ordered a report on sea level rise to start considering future infrastructure needs in coastal North Carolina. Droz is the scientist who debunked that report.
The ensuing saga resulted in the passing of NC House Bill 819, a law that said the North Carolina General Assembly would not make any "rule, policy or planning guideline" recommendations based on sea level change rates. Much of the conversation around its impact centered on development.
"The law had a chilling effect on discussion of sea level rise," Emory said.
The law expired in 2016, but critical issues remain.
“The problem with the current state of affairs is that it is a free-for-all where structures can be built (or rebuilt) in areas that are currently regularly flooded by the seas or will be soon,” Florida Climate Institute Fellow and University of Florida Department of Geological Sciences associate professor Andrea Dutton said.
Dutton is co-leader of a group that examines changes in sea level and ice sheet mass to improve predictions on future sea level rise.
“Because there is no regulation stating that development must consider any amount of sea level rise, this promotes dangerous and irresponsible development in the most risk-prone areas,” she said.
Simply having a law expire isn’t enough — new legislation should be introduced, Sive, Paget & Riesel principal Michael Bogin said. His New York-based firm was the first environmental law firm in the country. Bogin specializes in flooding issues and regulation, representing developers and property owners.
There needs to be legislation to replace it or to recommend that the science be incorporated, or else it simply won’t happen at the state level, he said.
“‘It expired and let’s just wait and see what happens,’” is not the answer, he said. “That’s a recipe for disaster. Crossing your fingers and hoping that a hurricane hits somewhere else isn’t a planning strategy — it’s just burying your head.”
How It All Started
CRC's report in 2010 came back with a staggering warning about rates and acceleration of sea level rise that concerned the panel and in turn, county officials.
Droz, an independent scientist and physicist, said he was asked by a Carteret County commissioner to review Emory’s report. “I was not a sea-level-rise expert at the time,” he said. “Of course, I am now.”
Droz sent the report to sea-level-rise experts around the world. Of the approximately 35 scientists he sent the report to, he said about 30 of them responded that the report was lousy, overstating forecasts of sea level rise.
“It didn't meet the grade of proper scientific credentials and as a result it should not be utilized by North Carolina communities. That's what this whole thing is about,” Droz said. “So people saying that this was against sea level rise — that's totally wrong. This had nothing to do with sea level rise.”
After putting his findings together, Droz said he approached Emory, recommending that he revise the report. Droz said Emory refused to do so, and so Droz took the analysis of the report public. “And that’s when it became controversial,” he said.
Emory said the intentions behind the CRC report were misunderstood. It was simply meant to be the beginning of a conversation.
“We wanted to start thinking about how to address [rising sea levels]. If you don’t know what the severity of it is, it’s hard to address,” he said.
“I think the report was excellent. I think the mistake we made on the commission — I’m being charitable when I say this is the reason people reacted to it — perhaps we didn’t make it clear that this was something to start the discussion,” Emory said. “It wasn’t a regulatory document. We just wanted to get a baseline of information.”
Droz presented his findings to a group of state legislators. In the audience was Jeff Warren, a senator’s aide with a doctorate in oceanography who took the information and ran with it.
“He has higher credentials than anyone on that [CRC] panel,” Droz said. “He understood exactly what I was saying and he agreed with my conclusions. Unbeknownst to me, he drew up this bill.”
Warren is now research director for the North Carolina Policy Collaboratory at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. A university media representative said he was unavailable to be interviewed for this story.
The result of Warren’s bill was the 2012 passage of NC HB 819, a law that stated the General Assembly had no intentions of mandating the development of sea level policy.
In the meantime, a group of local real estate agents, community members and developers caught wind of the CRC’s report and rallied against it. NC-20 was formed, representing real estate interests in the 20 coastal counties along the North Carolina coast.
Droz said he has no affiliation with NC-20 and that at no point did he take development into consideration when presenting his findings of the resource commission’s report.
“It had nothing to do with real estate — zero. I was the person involved in this. My county commissioner called me up and asked me to get involved. There was no real estate consideration at any point,” Droz said.
Ignoring The Trends To Develop?
The bill's first draft said legislators could look at sea level rise but only based on historical data and not on predictions that changes would accelerate. The final draft that was enacted into law said the General Assembly wouldn't consider sea level rise at all.
It drew national attention. Media reports, including Stephen Colbert’s "Sink or Swim" skit, called out the bill for not allowing discussion of rate of acceleration of sea level rise. Revisions were made, and in the end, the law did not outlaw anything. It instead stated it would not stop any local government from defining rates of sea-level change for regulatory purposes.
Yet, no local governments did.
In the years since, development has continued along the state’s coastal communities.
“My guess is that it is generally seen as political suicide to do anything that would be construed as preventing local growth and development,” Dutton said. “[The North Carolina General Assembly] mandated that another study be done and effectively kicked the can down the road to adopt any rate of sea land level rise, but then never took action once this updated study was released.”
The legislation was backed by private business owners who did not want to have to consider that sea level will rise by at least a meter by the end of the century, Dutton said.
“The challenge here is that people who are developers build things, sell them, then they’re out. They don’t need to worry about the long term. The idea that we should leave it up to them to decide is a little bit backward.”
The concept behind the legislation was well-intended, Bogin said. “For better or worse, since the dawn of time man has been attracted to the seashore. Realistically, we’re not going to leave anytime soon. But you can’t ignore the trends of rising sea levels over the past 50 to 100 years. That is really what this bill does.”
“It doesn’t say you need to ignore the past, but you can’t use the best information available to you in making decisions about waterfront development in the future. You would never do that in any other circumstance that I can imagine,” Bogin said.
After North Carolina Republican Gov. Pat McCrory was elected in 2012, the CRC was reshaped and many of the earlier members, including Emory, were no longer on the panel.
In 2015, the new CRC released an updated sea level prediction report, and Droz said that one was much more accurate. The new study stated that North Carolinians should expect more flooding in low-lying areas and that agency groups should work with the scientific community, landowners and political bodies to consider risks.
Instead of looking 100 years down the road, it examines predictions over 30 years. “They’ve looked at things in a shorter time period, which I personally think makes more sense,” Droz said.
In 2016, Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper was elected. In July, he reappointed Emory to the CRC panel.
So, Is Sea Level Rise A Concern Or Not?
Droz said the new report more appropriately divided the coast into several segments. Sea level rise in Wilmington may not be the same as in Kill Devil Hills, for instance. In the northern part of the state, there is a phenomenon called subsidence that is important to take into account when discussing sea level rise, Droz said.
“It isn’t that the water is going up, but that the ground is going down. That has nothing to do with climate change,” Droz said.
The sea level has been rising for a long time, Droz said. It has been a linear rise, meaning over 10 or 20 years there has been a consistent increase.
“If by 2100, we keep on the same path we’re on, we’re maybe 8 inches more in North Carolina,” he said. “That’s not a very catastrophic, very problematic amount.”
Dutton said we have been measuring sea level rise for a long time using tide gauges and NASA satellite data, and the robust data shows that not only has sea level been rising, but it has been accelerating.
“There’s basically no question in the minds of the scientists who study this that not only is this going to keep rising, but the rate is going to increase in the future, which is why when this legislation was introduced — you know, this is ridiculous because we know it’s not going to be a linear rate of rise, it’s going to be higher than that. They would clearly be underestimating what's going to happen in the future,” Dutton said.
Droz doesn't believe sea level rise is going to radically change all of a sudden. Often that concern is tied to predictions that glaciers in Iceland and Greenland will melt into the ocean, he said.
“The problem is, that’s entirely speculative. That has not happened and it doesn’t look like it’s happening,” he said. “To just assume the entire country is going to melt and it’s all going to flow into the ocean versus staying in lakes or something, is wildly speculative. That’s the problem,” Droz said. “If you say ‘prove it’, or ‘based on what?’ they have no proof. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but from the evidence we have to date, it’s a very low likelihood such a thing will happen.”
North Carolina was not affected by a sea level rise component during Hurricane Florence, Droz said. Reports suggesting that the storm surge or flooding was worse due to sea level rise is just not sound, he said.
A Wake-Up Call: What's Next After Florence
Planning for future rates of sea level rise would help keep people from harm’s way, Dutton said.
“Maybe some places might have a few decades on their time before things get really bad. They need all that time. You can’t just pick up a city and move it. You can’t change where energy will come from or pick up goods and services — we need to use our time now to prepare for that.”
“At the end of the day, this is saving people’s lives. We have an incredible ability to forecast hurricanes. It’s like watching an atomic bomb in slow motion. It helps people to evacuate earlier and get out of harm’s way,” Dutton said. “But as coastal flooding becomes more frequent as well as more severe, it is quite clear that these coastal developers and state legislators have literally been gambling with people’s lives by allowing this growth to occur in the face of ongoing sea level rise.”
Emory said although sea level rise has become a sensitive phrase, other discussions are reshaping codes. Some coastal communities have adopted higher freeboard regulations — the placement of a building's lowest floor above flood elevations — for certain parts of their jurisdiction, he said. Houses built in areas that are subject to coastal flooding may require higher foundations.
“That’s in response to the more frequent flooding that people have seen. So I would say that that more frequent flooding and sea level rise are not unrelated — they are related — but people are responding to the flooding. They’re not, per se, responding to the sea level rise.”
All North Carolina needs to do is look to other states to see what can be done to protect the state’s residents, Bogin said. New York has made very significant advances in resiliency after the devastation of Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
“People died, hundreds of millions of dollars of property was damaged. It was a heck of a wake-up call,” he said.
New York has updated its building codes, including adopting a community risk and resiliency act.
Bogin said he thinks Florence will be North Carolina’s wake-up call. “It’s unfortunate, but sometimes that’s what it takes. I have to imagine that following this, people are going to say ‘Well, what did our elected officials do to help us plan?’ The first question is going to be ‘How are they going to help us recover?’ But the next question is going to be ‘How do we make sure it doesn’t happen again?’”
CORRECTION, SEPT. 26, 4 P.M. ET: The story has been updated to correct Andrea Dutton's title and to clarify her quote on linear rate of rise in sea level.