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North Carolina governor calls for sweeping, inclusive rebuilding process after Florence

Gov. Roy Cooper said the state must work to rebuild without repeating the mistakes of the past.

Floodwaters damage railroad tracks and cover a road after Hurricane Florence struck the Carolinas September 17, 2018, in Wallace, South Carolina. CREDIT: Sean Rayford/Getty Images
Floodwaters damage railroad tracks and cover a road after Hurricane Florence struck the Carolinas September 17, 2018, in Wallace, South Carolina. CREDIT: Sean Rayford/Getty Images

North Carolina’s governor called for a large-scale, corrective rebuilding process after Hurricane Florence, one that accounts for affordable housing and strengthens the state’s resilience in the face of such devastating storms.

During a press conference Tuesday with state officials and Brock Long, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Gov. Roy Cooper (D) emphasized the need for patience and caution as hundreds of thousands of people continue to suffer the impacts of Florence, now a tropical depression.

“Days after Florence first hit our state, we continue to feel the effects of this massive storm,” Cooper told reporters. “One thing we know too well is that sunshine doesn’t mean… safety.”

At least 16 rivers in North Carolina are currently at major flood stage as Florence’s rains continue to fall, with another three rivers forecast to peak. Thirty-two people have died throughout the region in connection with Florence’s impacts, 26 of them in North Carolina. Around 10,000 people are believed to be in the state’s four emergency shelters, which officials said were each at around 75 percent of their capacity. More than 300,000 people remain without power and new road closings are still happening.

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Toxic sites also remain a point of concern. At least one of the state’s infamous hog-manure lagoons has breached, potentially jeopardizing nearby water sources. One nuclear power plant is in a low-level state of emergency and at least two breaches at coal ash sites have been reported.

Focus right now is centered on the immediate danger posed by the storm, but the governor also took time to emphasize the importance of rebuilding the state, long after Florence has passed.

“We want to be smarter,” said Cooper, speaking to future rebuilding efforts. “We want to plan this in a way [that we] can get people back into housing. This storm has put a spotlight on the issue of affordable housing that we have.”

Only around 10 percent of homeowners on North Carolina’s coast have flood insurance. With FEMA aid often as little as $5,000, many residents in that area will lose their homes entirely once the storm has ended, playing out a familiar tragedy, one reported throughout southeastern Texas last year after Hurricane Harvey.

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Those in the state most impacted by Florence include vulnerable groups more broadly, like farmworkers and people who are homeless, two communities impacted by housing costs. There are around 150,000 farmworkers in North Carolina and an estimated 13,000 homeless residents, according to the Washington Post. Cooper said on Tuesday that a significant percentage of crops have been destroyed by the storm, including tobacco, cotton, and peanuts. That crop loss is likely to take a deep economic toll, something farmworkers in Florida experienced after Hurricane Irma last year.

North Carolina has been criticized for prioritizing development over repeated warnings from experts about sea-level rise, a growing problem that has come into stark view amid Florence’s siege. As a coastal state, North Carolina is being hit by climate change on several fronts, with both its coastline receding as water rises and its larger population threatened by hurricanes like Florence. Warmer waters allow hurricanes to supercharge and stall over land, unleashing rain like the kind currently devastating the state.

Cooper did not explicitly reference climate change or call for a rebuilding effort that prioritized sustainability. But he did nod to the toll hurricanes have taken in recent years on North Carolina and underscored that the state needs to work to avoid the mistakes of the past.

Long, the FEMA director, echoed portions of Cooper’s comments, saying that rebuilding efforts would be long term and indicating that Florence has proven the state needs to take measures to rebuild efficiently.

“Lot of tools in the toolbox [for rebuilding],” said Long, who is himself a North Carolina resident. “Let’s don’t rebuild to the pre-disaster standard.”

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The governor also expanded on his points, saying restoration projects would look deeper and probe the state’s underpinnings and infrastructure in an effort to fortify North Carolina against future storms.

“Not only housing but our infrastructure, our roads,” said Cooper, adding the effort will be “massive rebuilding project [and] we want to do it right.”