Hell and High Water: the Perils of Climate Denial Politics — South Carolina as a Case Example


Jaoquin pics4South Carolina was the hardest hit of all the Atlantic coastal states affected by the massive storm system that was exacerbated by Hurricane Joaquin. Massive flooding took the lives of 19 South Carolinians and 6 others, demolished homes and buildings, turned roads into rivers, left over 30,000 without power, felled trees, and inflicted at least $1 billion in property damage. For Dixieland, the so-called October 2015 North American Storm Complex — there is not even a memorable name for it — is another Hugo (1989) or a milder (but still devastating) version of Hurricane Katrina (2005) or Sandy (2012).

Fewer than one out of ten homeowners in the state have flood insurance: the road ahead will be difficult if not impossible for many. Elected officials representing South Carolina have a poor track record of readying the state for a litany of climate change impacts predicted for the Southeastern US. Even Senator Lindsey Graham [R-SC], who has charmed environmental groups of late with sweet talk about the need for sensible policies to deal with climate change, and set himself apart from fellow Republicans who play the climate denial game, backtracked on passage of national climate change legislation at a critical moment in 2010, and again in 2012, when he voted to deny federal disaster relief for victims of Hurricane Sandy. South Carolina is poorly prepared for a climate disrupted future, its leaders at every level of government have thus far shirked their responsibility to help protect their constituents from climate risks, and now, the state is feeling the sting of an extreme weather event. Will lessons be learned, and new, improved leadership emerge from the floodwaters?

Multiple deaths from extreme weather events such as the massive Southeast flooding over the past few weeks are tragic, and, we argue, avoidable (to a degree) and evidence of poor governance. Willful ignorance of the climate change threat — and/or a simple refusal to take the requisite steps to face it — has all too often impeded the adoption of sensible public policy at the federal, state, and local level, and has thus left communities all over the US more vulnerable to a range of long-predicted climate disruption impacts. Of course, there are important exceptions: some states, counties, and cities are facing the causes and effects of climate change head on, while others have made important first steps. Unfortunately, too many have not. Strong leadership — marked by earnest efforts to reduce carbon emissions while raising the resilience of communities to a litany of increasingly unavoidable, well-documented consequences — has been vastly better in some geographic areas than in others.

The US Southeastern region overall exhibits a poor level of preparedness for expected impacts: long-term drought, sea level rise, storm surges, saltwater intrusion, extreme weather in the form of severe storms and ensuring floods, etc. As a whole, state delegations in the US Congress representing Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, North Carolina, and, to a lesser extent, Virginia and Florida, are now (and have historically been) naysayers and do-nothings when it comes to heeding the warnings of climate experts going back three decades. Southeastern state governors, mayors, county executives and others who were put in office to represent and act in the best interest of their constituents have also demonstrated reluctance to acknowledge and deal with the real, growing risks of a more hostile and less predictable climate system. For more detail, a variety of organizations have issued reports assessing the relative preparedness for climate impacts among the 50 states (see for example, here, and here).

In this post we focus exclusively on South Carolina, hardest hit this month by what meteorologists are referring to as the October 2015 North American Storm Complex. The week-long storm produced up to two feet of rain in some locations. Flooding events in the Palmetto State have been so severe and statistically improbable that they are predicted to occur only once every 500 to 1,000 years. Power outages left over 30,000 people without electricity; some residents are still waiting for the power to be restored. Residents statewide are advised to boil tap water before drinking or using it to cook, as many water supplies contain bacteria from sewage contamination. Thousands are temporarily displaced or homeless after floodwaters destroyed their homes. 19 South Carolinians are dead as a direct result of the storm, many in fatal vehicle collisions on roads that suddenly turned to gushing rivers.

Scarier still, it could have been worse. Atlantic coast residents breathed a sigh of relief, having dodged a bullet when Hurricane Joaquin turned and headed back out to sea. Joaquin had swept through a chain of tropical islands, taking 34 lives and ravaging large areas in the Bahamas, Turks and Caicos, the Greater Antilles, and Bermuda. While there was no direct hit to the US coastline, Joaquin packed a 1-2 punch: it left behind a vast reservoir of airborne moisture that served as the ammunition for a sort of weather cannon ignited by a rare confluence of meteorological conditions that slammed coastal areas from New York to Florida with extreme weather shrapnel, to carry the metaphor. An ominous offshore weather front formed when a strong upper level, low pressure system over the Florida Panhandle collided with a large, high pressure system to the north, producing an explosive storm loaded with tropical moisture stirred up by Joaquin.

Jaoquin2Climatologists Bob Jensen and Jeff Masters called the October 2015 mega-storm “one of the most widespread and intense multi-day rain events in the history of the Southeast bringing misery and destruction to thousands.” Weather watchers expressed incredulity; Stu Ostro, veteran meteorologist and Director of Weather Communications at The Weather Company, was completely taken aback.

South Carolina was hardest hit. Record rainfall occurred all over the state. Charleston experienced nearly a foot of rain in one 24-hour period. Nearly 20 river dams were breached or collapsed altogether. Rain gauges were washed away. With nearly 30,000 miles of rivers and streams flowing through the state, and another 24,000 miles of dry streams, South Carolina is no stranger to the occasional flooding but the state has seen nothing like this — not since 1989 when Hurricane Hugo took the lives of 27 South Carolinians and was, at the time, the most costly and damaging hurricane yet, resulting in $10 billion in damages. Meanwhile, Governor Nikki Haley failed to prepare the state and budget for critically needed infrastructure improvements, with twenty percent of the state’s bridges “already rated structurally deficient or obsolete before the rains” and an estimated $500 million needed “just to patch up the existing network of roads.” The GOP-controlled legislature deemed the cause of repairing the bridges unworthy of funding, while the state budget allocated a mere “$200,000 per year on dam safety in a state with 2,400 dams,” 180 of which categorized as “‘high hazard’ —  meaning that loss of life would be likely if they were to fail.”

National coverage has been scant, so it is forgivable to be under the impression that Joaquin missed us and therefore everything is just fine. Check out hashtags #SEflood and #SCflood on Twitter, or local news stations in South Carolina. Just this morning, the National Guard reported that over 700 “troops on the ground” are hard at work trying to open up roads and highways that still remain closed from the flooding. The ongoing crisis is a slow-rolling one, and will have national implications.

With regards to emergency management, South Carolina is not remarkably worse or better prepared than any other Atlantic coast state vulnerable to hurricanes and intense rainstorms. However, its politicians and elected officials have generally opted to ignore or outright deny legitimate warnings from the scientific community of human-caused climate change and what it could mean for the electorate. Senator Graham has laudably gone on record as acknowledging climate change as a real problem needing “sensible solutions” and castigated his Republican brethren for their “I am not a scientist” meme (a meme CSPW recently railed against yet again — see here for example). But, as raised at the outset, he was instrumental in the unraveling of an important climate change bill in 2010. And in 2012, Senator Graham joined with Tim Scott, and every single Representative in the SC delegation, in voting “No” on a bill to provide emergency natural disaster funding for the victims of Hurricane Sandy. Each of them cited opposition to adding to the federal deficit.

However, now that his own constituents are in desperate need, his concern for the deficit has suddenly disappeared. “Rather than putting a price tag on it, let’s just get through this thing and whatever it costs, it costs,” he said in a CNN interview on October 5, as the storm’s devastation and potential price tag became evident. Kudos to reporter Michael Scotto and others for publicly calling out the hypocrisy. Think harsh weather events made more extreme as a result of global climate change is just computer models and scientific ponderings? Think again. For a time, climate change seemed distant and nebulous; but the reality is it is now here and it is up close and personal.

Governor Nikki Haley and her administration are no better. The only evidence CSPW could find that the state is even looking at climate change is a report issued by the Department of Natural Resources in 2013. It could have been written by a high school or college student with Google and Wikipedia on hand; it talks vaguely of risks to the state’s natural resources, but lacks any meaningful level of detail and does not address how South Carolinians might increase community resilience to climate impacts or bring down carbon emissions.

While the full extent and cost of the damage will not be fully known for some time, just a few days into the storm, insurance experts predicted over $1 billion in damages. No doubt this number will rise as property damage is assessed and claims are submitted.

An added hardship that could have been avoided lies in the fact that the vast majority of the South Carolina residents with homes damaged or destroyed by the floods do not carry flood insurance. One estimate is that, out of a total 2.2 million housing units in the state, only about nine percent, or fewer than 200,000, carry flood insurance under the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP); a program created in 1968 to fill the void private insurance carriers left when they all began excluding damages caused by floods. (Under NFIP, anyone falling within a designated FEMA floodplain and living in a community that adopts certain floodplain management regulations can buy federal flood insurance). Studies conducted by insurance companies have discovered that as many as one third of all homeowners don’t even realize that their standard home insurance policy excludes coverage for floods. Those who are eligible to purchase a policy through NFIP are often reluctant to do so, as premiums have become more costly (the result of a federal law passed in 2012 to repair weaknesses in the NFIP program, a law ironically called the Biggert-Waters Act), and their perception of risk from a flood tends to fade with each passing year after the last major flood. For the uninsured, flood victims can apply for assistance through FEMA, but not everyone is eligible and for those who are, payments are low and take many months to process. All too often, entire life savings are washed away with personal belongings, and short-term catastrophic losses result in long-term financial hardship.

The story of one family illustrates the problem. The Columbia, SC family home of Doug Anderson, a National Weather Service meteorologist, was devastated by the record rains and ensuing floods. Even though Columbia’s proximity to three major rivers makes it vulnerable to flooding, Anderson had not secured flood insurance. Two years ago, his home was severely damaged by a water pipe burst and the family ended up having to spend their life savings in the reconstruction. Now, fellow meteorologist Hunter Coleman is seeking help for Doug Anderson and his family with a GoFundMe campaign. As of this writing, the site shows a total of $4,425 in individual donations. While heartwarming, the effort will fall far short of the tens of thousands they will need to repair and rebuild, again. When the weatherman himself lands in such a heartbreaking weather-induced predicament, it’s time to go back to the drawing board.

South Carolina is about to experience what New York and New Jersey are still dealing with, post-Sandy. If there is any one lesson to learn from these large “natural” disasters, it is that cleanup, restoration, and rebuilding take a very long time and are extremely costly.

Still, people take their chances, failing to realize that the weather dice are now loaded in a climate-changed world, and the weather they face in the future may bear little resemblance to the weather patterns of the past. For those who live and work where flooding is likely to be more frequent and severe, such as in South Carolina, hedging your bets is a good idea. Purchasing flood insurance is a good idea. Reducing or eliminating the risk of personal devastation after a flood by moving to higher ground or building a home raised on stilts is an even better one.

What will South Carolina do to better prepare itself for similar incidents of extreme weather in the future? Plenty of thought has been given in the US and around the world to building up resilience to climate impacts. Basic infrastructure — highways, roads, bridges, dams, and so on — are built based on past climate data and patterns that can no longer be trusted to predict future climatic conditions.

Further, our aging infrastructure adds to the risk; for example, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers, 1,048 of 9,275 South Carolina bridges are structurally deficient. Rather than designing for conditions indicative of the past, engineers are now facing the prospect of having to design for much harsher, stronger, more challenging conditions. The built environment — residential homes, commercial buildings, industrial facilities, hospitals, and so on — must also be retrofitted or relocated to either withstand or avoid areas prone to flooding and inundation. Better evacuation plans are needed, and backup communication systems must be on hand when the power goes out and cell tower reception is compromised. The to-do list is long, but the sooner we tackle the challenges, the fewer fatalities there will be when extreme weather arrives, the less damage there will be to repair, and we will decrease the burden on the federal budget to cough up billions of dollars in emergency assistance.

FEMA’s official website for its National Flood Insurance Program and for educating the public on how best to protect oneself from the devastation floods can inflict is www.floodsmart.govAs far as we can tell, the nation could be a lot “floodsmarter” than it is today.

Senior CSPW Contributor Anne Polansky has 30 years of experience in public policies relating to energy and the environment, with a strong focus on climate change and renewable energy.

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