Sunday, September 20, 2009

What happens next time in North Carolina?

Bruce Henderson in the Charlotte Observer: We build stronger houses, prepare better for disasters and wield computer and communications technology that makes 1989's look quaint. But all that, experts say, would only partially blunt the devastation of another Hugo-sized hurricane - one that might be increasingly likely to strike the Carolinas.

For every step forward in preparedness, they say, a vulnerability also grows: A half-million more people to evacuate from the coast; A rising sea lapping at thousands of square miles of low-lying land; eroding beaches, the first line of defense from an Atlantic storm.

Hugo left $7 billion in U.S. property damage, mostly in the Carolinas. Because development has intensified, with houses bigger and more expensive, state officials say a similar storm now could triple that amount.

…The N.C. Department of Insurance estimates that a Hugo-strength storm that makes landfall near Wilmington would cause at least $5 billion in insured losses to residential property. South Carolina's emergency officials say Hugo today would leave $16 billion to $20 billion in wreckage there. Hugo's memorable lesson, of course, was that even Charlotte isn't immune….

…The N.C. coast faces another threat that could magnify the impact of future storms. Sea level is expected to rise up to 2.5 feet on the northern coast by 2100, East Carolina University researchers say, in part because portions of the coastal plain are slightly sinking. More than 2,300 square miles - an area four times bigger than Mecklenburg County - are less than 5 feet above sea level, making them especially vulnerable to storm surges. Despite that, repeated hurricanes have done little to dissuade people from building on the beach….

An old brick building in Charleston, South Carolina in ruins after 1989's Hurricane Hugo, shot by NOAA

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