6 years ago, North Carolina chose to ignore rising sea levels. This week it braces for disaster.

In 2012, North Carolina legislators passed a bill that barred policymakers and developers from using up-to-date climate science to plan for rising sea levels on the state’s coast. Now Hurricane Florence threatens to cause a devastating storm surge that could put thousands of lives in danger and cost the state billions of dollars worth of damage.

The hurricane, which is expected to make landfall on Friday, is shaping up to be one of the worst storms to hit the East Coast. Residents of North Carolina’s Outer Banks and mainland coasts have already been ordered to evacuate. President Donald Trumpdeclared a state of emergency in both North and South Carolina, and a Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator said that the Category 4 hurricane will likely cause “massive damage to our country.”

And the rise in sea levels, experts say, is making the storm surge worse.

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Preparations made ahead of Florence
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Preparations made ahead of Florence
Houses are seen near high tide on September 11, 2018 in on Topsail Island, North Carolina, where many homes, already battling flooding and beach erosion, aren't sure what to expect with the impending arrival of Hurricane Florence. (Photo by Logan Cyrus / AFP) (Photo credit should read LOGAN CYRUS/AFP/Getty Images)
ATLANTIC OCEAN - SEPTEMBER 10: In this NOAA satellite handout image, shows Hurricane Florence (C) as it gains strength in the Atlantic Ocean southeast of Bermuda moving west on September 10, 2018. Hurricane Isaac and Helene can be seen to the east of Florence. Weather predictions say the storm will likely hit the U.S. East Coast as early as Thursday, September 13 bringing massive winds and rain. (Photo by NOAA via Getty Images)
Residents evacuate from coastal areas near Wallace, North Carolina, on September 11, 2018. - Hurricane Florence would deliver a 'direct hit' to the US East Coast, emergency officials warned on September 11, 2018, urging residents to heed evacuation orders and seek shelter from the potentially catastrophic storm. More than one million people in North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia have been told to flee their homes as the hurricane churns across the Atlantic Ocean towards the coast. (Photo by ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS / AFP) (Photo credit should read ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP/Getty Images)
Customers line up to buy propane at Socastee Hardware store, ahead of the arrival of Hurricane Florence in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, U.S. September 10, 2018. REUTERS/Randall Hill
Hurricane Florence is seen from the International Space Station as it churns in the Atlantic Ocean towards the east coast of the United States, September 10, 2018. NASA/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY
The pumps at the Shell gas station on Western Boulevard featured 'out of gas' signs as people prepared to ride out Hurricane Florence on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2018, in Raleigh, N.C. (Casey Toth/Raleigh News & Observer/TNS via Getty Images)
South Carolina National Guard soldiers transfer bulk diesel fuel into fuel tanker trucks for distribution in advance of Hurricane Florence, in North Charleston, South Carolina, U.S. September 10, 2018. U.S. Army National Guard/Sgt. Brian Calhoun/Handout via REUTERS. ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY
Hurricane Florence seen over the Atlantic Ocean, about 750 miles southeast of Bermuda in this handout photo provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on September 9, 2018. NOAA NWS National Hurricane Center/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
Customers line up to buy propane at Socastee Hardware store, ahead of the arrival of Hurricane Florence in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, U.S. September 10, 2018. REUTERS/Randall Hill
A photo taken from the International Space Station by astronaut Ricky Arnold shows Hurricane Florence over the Atlantic Ocean in the early morning hours of September 6, 2018. Picture taken September 6, 2018. Courtesy @astro_ricky/NASA/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. MANDATORY CREDIT.
Boarded up houses are seen ahead of Hurricane Florence� expected landfall, at Holden Beach, North Carolina, U.S., September 10, 2018. REUTERS/Anna Driver
A beachfront home is boarded up ahead of Hurricane Florence, at Holden Beach, North Carolina, U.S., September 10, 2018. REUTERS/Anna Driver
A photo taken from the International Space Station by astronaut Ricky Arnold shows Hurricane Florence over the Atlantic Ocean in the early morning hours of September 6, 2018. Picture taken September 6, 2018. Courtesy @astro_ricky/NASA/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. MANDATORY CREDIT.
A county worker drives astride the levy along Lowery Street September 10, 2018 in Lumberton, North Carolina, ahead of Hurricane Florence. In 2016 Hurricane Matthew caused catrostraphic flooding in Lumberton. - More than a million people were ordered to evacuate the path of Hurricane Florence as the Category 4 storm packing winds of 130 miles per hour (195 kilometers per hour) bore down on the East Coast of the United States. South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster told up to one million residents of the state's eastern coast to leave their homes ahead of the powerful storm's arrival on Thursday. The governor of neighboring North Carolina also ordered an evacuation of the Outer Banks and parts of coastal Dare County while a state of emergency was declared in Virginia. (Photo by Logan Cyrus / AFP) (Photo credit should read LOGAN CYRUS/AFP/Getty Images)
The water treatment facility sits along Lowery Street in Lumberton, North Carolina, September 10, 2018. In 2016 Hurricane Matthew caused catrostraphic flooding in Lumberton as well as the water treatment plant, causing thousands without water. - More than a million people were ordered to evacuate the path of Hurricane Florence as the Category 4 storm packing winds of 130 miles per hour (195 kilometers per hour) bore down on the East Coast of the United States. South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster told up to one million residents of the state's eastern coast to leave their homes ahead of the powerful storm's arrival on Thursday. The governor of neighboring North Carolina also ordered an evacuation of the Outer Banks and parts of coastal Dare County while a state of emergency was declared in Virginia. (Photo by Logan Cyrus / AFP) (Photo credit should read LOGAN CYRUS/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump holds an Oval Office meeting on hurricane preparations as FEMA Administrator Brock Long points to the potential track of Hurricane Florence on a graphic at the White House in Washington, U.S., September 11, 2018. REUTERS/Leah Millis
Tarek Elshik, left, fills gas cans to fuel a generator to refrigerate insulin for his 10-year-old daughter Yasmeen Elshik's Type 1 diabetes treatment in case power goes out during Hurricane Florence, on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2018, at the Exxon station on Western Boulevard in Raleigh, N.C. (Casey Toth/Raleigh News & Observer/TNS via Getty Images)
Tarek Elshik fills gas cans to fuel a generator to refrigerate insulin for his 10-year-old daughter Yasmeen Elshik's Type 1 diabetes treatment in case power goes out during Hurricane Florence, on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2018, at the Exxon station on Western Boulevard in Raleigh, N.C. (Casey Toth/Raleigh News & Observer/TNS via Getty Images)
President Donald Trump speaks to members of the media following a briefing on Hurricane Florence in the Oval Office at the White House September 11, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by ZACH GIBSON / AFP) (Photo credit should read ZACH GIBSON/AFP/Getty Images)
Vehicles line up September 11, 2018 as they exit Surf City, North Carolina, following a mandatory evacuation order and curfew ahead of the arrival of Hurrican Florence. (Photo by Logan Cyrus / AFP) (Photo credit should read LOGAN CYRUS/AFP/Getty Images)
Houses are seen near high tide on September 11, 2018 in on Topsail Island, North Carolina, where many homes, already battling flooding and beach erosion, aren't sure what to expect with the impending arrival of Hurricane Florence. (Photo by Logan Cyrus / AFP) (Photo credit should read LOGAN CYRUS/AFP/Getty Images)
Signs warn customers that alcohol sales are suspended at an Exxon station in Harbinger, North Carolina on September 11, 2018. - From Charleston's colonial mansions with finely-crafted balustrades, to fragile Outer Banks beaches, to exalted centers of American history, the tourism-heavy US East Coast is facing a potentially devastating blow from Hurricane Florence. (Photo by Alex Edelman / AFP) (Photo credit should read ALEX EDELMAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Residents evacuate from coastal areas near Wallace, North Carolina, on September 11, 2018. - Hurricane Florence would deliver a 'direct hit' to the US East Coast, emergency officials warned on September 11, 2018, urging residents to heed evacuation orders and seek shelter from the potentially catastrophic storm. More than one million people in North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia have been told to flee their homes as the hurricane churns across the Atlantic Ocean towards the coast. (Photo by ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS / AFP) (Photo credit should read ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP/Getty Images)
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Sea level rise is a direct consequence of global warming; the warming of the ocean has resulted in thermal expansion and melted ice sheets and glaciers that are causing the oceans to rise. Since 1950, the sea level has risen 6.5 inches ― a number that sounds small but has actually had major consequences across the country.  

“Sea level rising, simply put, makes every coastal flood deeper and more destructive,” said Ben Strauss, CEO of Climate Central, a climate change research organization that has published dozens of studies about rising sea levels and the risks of ignoring the problem. “Ignoring it is incredibly dangerous.”

“It only takes a few extra inches of water depth to be the difference between a ruined floor and no damage, or a ruined electrical system and just a ruined floor,” Strauss said. “Floods tend to be a great deal more destructive and costly than homeowners anticipate.”

Sea level rise can also affect the severity of hurricanes, said William Sweet, an oceanographer at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “If you compared storm surge heights from the same storm at the same location over several decades, the surge would be higher ― assuming no change in flood defenses ― because of sea level rise,” Sweet said.  

But in North Carolina, lawmakers chose to ignore the threats. A panel of scientists on the state Coastal Resources Commission issued a dire warning in March 2010, estimating that the sea levels along the state’s coast would rise 39 inches over the next century. Conservative lawmakers and business interest groups feared the report would hurt lucrative real estate development on the state’s coast and sought to undermine it. A lobbying group committed to economic development on the coast accused the panel of “pulling data out of their hip pocket.”

Conservative state Rep. Pat McElraft, whose top campaign contributors were the North Carolina Association of Realtors and the North Carolina Home Builders’ Association, drafted a bill in response that rejected the panel’s predictions.

McElraft introduced the bill in April 2011, and it passed the legislature in the summer of 2012.

Part of the bill stipulated that state and local agencies must also refer to historical linear predictions of sea level rise rather than current research, and another alarming section required that research look only at 30-year predictions rather than at a century, as the CRC report had done. Supporters of the bill saw short-term benefits in more affordable insurance, and continued opportunities for real estate development and tourism along the attractive coast. Critics saw the long-term consequences of damaged homes and businesses and vast swaths of the state being swallowed by floods.   

Environmental scientists, coastal researchers and a number of lawmakers called the measure a blatant denial of crucial climate science and criticized then-Gov. Bev Perdue (D) for not acting on the bill and therefore allowing it to become law.

“By putting our heads in the sand, literally, we are not helping property owners,” said then-state Sen. Deborah K. Ross. “We are hurting them. We are not giving them information they might need to protect their property. Ignorance is not bliss. It’s dangerous.”

‘It’s a really bad setup’

In North Carolina, the state’s topography and the rising sea levels have made for even more dangerous storms and floods, Strauss said. Unlike coastal communities that have deep, cliff-like dropoffs, North Carolina’s coast is flat, wide and shallow, “like a kiddie pool,” Strauss said. “When you think about storm surge, some places have higher potential than others. The same storm would produce different surges depending on the topography,” said Strauss.

The state also has a wide, shallow continental shelf compared with places like Miami, which “means there is massive potential for a storm surge,” he said.

“Especially a storm like this, that’s moving straight forward,” he said. “It’s a really bad setup.”

At the same time, climate change has “supercharged” recent storms, as HuffPost’s Chris D’Angelo reported on Friday, putting Florence on track to do as much, if not more, damage than last year’s Hurricane Harvey, which devastated parts of Texas and Louisiana.

“It is fair to say that the very same factors are likely at play here, namely very warm ocean temperatures and an anomalous jet stream pattern favoring stalled weather systems,” said Michael Mann, a climate scientist at Pennsylvania State University.

Climate change experts say a more proactive approach to emergency preparedness is necessary, including a better understanding of how global warming and sea level rising are affecting storms.

But it’s often complicated to bring the issue of how to adapt to the changing climate into emergency management discussions, said Jessica Whitehead, the coastal communities hazards adaptation specialist at North Carolina Sea Grant. Emergency response is so often dealing with a crisis, and “it is exceptionally difficult” to plan for one catastrophe while recovering from another.

  • This article originally appeared on HuffPost.
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