Hurricane Florence: Climate, Coastal Inaction Leaves Us Vulnerable
As Hurricane Florence grows and churns toward the Carolina coast, the National Wildlife Federation is working with our state affiliates along the Carolinas and Atlantic coast to map out the communities, special places, and species in harm’s way. Forecasters warn that the damage could be catastrophic anywhere from North Carolina’s Cape Hatteras National Monument to South Carolina’s Francis Marion National Forest, potentially impacting endangered species like red wolves, red-cockaded woodpeckers, and loggerhead sea turtles. Coastal flooding may harm other species, such as the saltmarsh sparrow, a bird already in decline due to rising sea levels.
Torrential rains and flooding far inland may also have serious impacts, including on the remarkable diversity of fish and other rare aquatic creatures found in the mountain valleys and hollows of southwestern Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina. Pollution from agricultural waste and toxic sites could also pose major problems.
Wildlife can be harmed by hurricanes in a number of ways, with their habitats destroyed, being stripped of food sources, or being blown far off course. Scientists believe 1991’s Hurricane Bob slashed the population of endangered roseate terns by 17 percent. In 2005, Hurricane Wilma hit at a key point of chimney swift migration and a study found only half of swifts returned to Quebec the following year. And in 2010, a North Carolina brown pelican was found on the roof of a night club in Halifax, Nova Scotia after a major storm.
Top meteorologists, climate scientists and coastal experts have been raising warnings this week that are as dire as they were before Hurricane Harvey hit Houston or Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands last year. It’s not hard to connect the dots to climate change as Florence is drawing fuel from Atlantic water much warmer than historic norms. Right now, Florence is one of an incredible six tropical systems churning simultaneously in the Atlantic and Caribbean.
Once again, our communities are voicing their shared frustration that the damage will be worse than it needed to be, because of the decades-long warnings we’ve failed to heed and the preventative actions that we failed to take:
- Climate change inaction: America’s efforts to cut climate-disrupting carbon pollution have so far fallen short of what scientists say is needed to curb the worst harms of global warming. Scientists have been warning us for decades that a warming climate is worsening hurricanes, fueled by more atmospheric energy and moisture, as well as warming ocean waters. Stronger storms mean more damaging winds, more intense rainfall and flooding, and higher storm surges, which themselves are now launched off higher sea levels. This administration is moving in the wrong direction, trying to gut the Clean Power Plan and methane pollution rules. But some good news – there’s a growing bipartisan movement in Congress to consider a price on carbon pollution, already being adopted by a growing portion of the world.
- Storm preparation inaction: The federal government and many state and local governments have often been painfully slow to prepare for climate disruption. The National Wildlife Federation has been urging policymakers to embrace natural defenses that can help absorb a storm’s energy. Additionally, a new report says the White House recently took $10 million out of FEMA’s budget.
- Coastal policy inaction: For years, the National Wildlife Federation has called for reform of the National Flood Insurance Program, a well-meaning but poorly-structured program that in effect subsidizes development in flood-prone areas. North Carolina politicians went so far as to ban coastal land use policies from taking global warming-fueled higher oceans – now up a foot and rising – into account.
- Wildlife and habitat inaction: While the Endangered Species Act has brought many species back from the brink of extinction, one third of America’s species are at risk due to threats like habitat loss, pollution, and climate change. The National Wildlife Federation is urging Congress to pass the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act to reinvest in our outdoor heritage. NWF works with 15 Community Wildlife Habitat teams in the Carolinas and as soon as the storm has passed, we’ll be working with them to help damaged communities bounce back.
There’s one form of inaction we can be thankful for. “If this administration had moved forward with its threats to open our Atlantic coast to oil and gas drilling, right now we’d be threatened by oil spills and malfunctioning of infrastructure of offshore oil and gas,” said Ben Gregg, executive director of the South Carolina Wildlife Federation. “The statistics on spills and damage from offshore oil and gas drilling in the Gulf from hurricanes is frightening.” South Carolina’s Post and Courier recently ran a simulation that showed an offshore oil disaster would be “impossible to control.”
Right now, the American Red Cross is already accepting donations for Hurricane Florence relief. We’ll keep you updated on ways you can help the communities and wildlife hurt by this potentially historic storm.