News | June 15, 2023

As hurricane seasons worsen, smarter policies matter

Norfolk, Virginia, is a coastal Southern city working to improve its resiliency in the wake of sea level rise and a worsening hurricane season.

Hurricane season starts in June and runs through November. While storms and hurricanes already pose serious threats to the South, climate change makes each storm season even more hazardous.

Whether storms hit industrial facilities or housing developments, the impacts from extreme weather can be disastrous for our Southern communities. SELC is working to address these threats by pushing for change at the local, state, and national levels to make sure our communities are not set up for failure before the next storm hits. 

Developers are building in the wrong places, using practices that exacerbate flooding and pollution. Not only are we not properly responding to current risk, we’re continuing to deny the one we know is right around the corner.

We need to get ahead of the problem and plan for our climate future before flooding in our communities gets even worse. 

Sierra Weaver, Leader of SELC’s Coast and Wetlands Program

Climate pollution and bad infrastructure choices make impacts worse 

Two modest homes sit by side on a sunny day with the homes reflected in the flooded front yards.
Homes in Norfolk, Virginia, regularly contend with flooding caused by tides and rising sea levels interacting. Photo by Michael Caudill

Human caused climate change is warming the ocean and raising sea levels at an accelerating rate. Extreme storms and hurricanes are becoming stronger over the warmer sea water and more unpredictable as they intensify at quicker speeds.  

Most land use decisions today underestimate present-day flood risks, not to mention future flood risks.

Sea level rise creates a higher launching point for storm surge, allowing it to move further up the shoreline than it used to. Stronger storms drop more water over more land, causing flooding even in inland areas that used to be shielded from hurricane impacts. This increased risk of flooding is made worse by development patterns that continue to place people and infrastructure in low-lying, flood-prone areas and block the ability for natural systems to store and filter runoff. And these combined impacts are harder to recover from in overburdened and low-income communities.

With flooding worsening and becoming more unpredictable, we need to act now to protect natural resources like wetlands and undeveloped floodplains that help keep our communities from harm, and we need to discourage development practices that make flooding worse. 

Jenny Brennan, SELC science and policy analyst

When we fill wetlands and build on top of them, we remove critical natural sponges with the ability to store up to 330,000 gallons of water per acre. When wetlands are gone, communities lose those built-in protections and there is more flood water to manage.

A recent U.S. Supreme Court decision severely narrowed federal water protections and put more than half of America’s wetlands at risk of pollution and destruction.

A shore with stones and a think line of marsh grass in the foreground, then some pylons and small boats and a large bridge in the background.
An acre of wetlands like these found on South Carolina’s Cainhoy Peninsula holds 330,000 gallons of water. When developers destroy wetlands, neighborhoods lose flood protection and homes are more likely to be damaged. Photo by Stephanie Gross

With states in our region also moving to eliminate wetlands protections in response, preserving these resources is more important than ever for communities across the South. The loss of natural flood storage combined with the continued placement of homes and infrastructure in harms’ way exacerbates the flooding that occurs when extreme weather and hurricanes bear down on our communities. Additionally, sources of harmful toxins, like coal ash and concentrated animal feeding operation waste pits, are sited in floodplains throughout the south, and each storm threatens releases of chemicals into neighboring communities.

For communities to adapt to extreme flooding worsened by climate change, we have to build better and smarter, in a way that works with our natural landscapes.

How SELC is tackling worsening storm impacts 

At SELC, we work to address bad policy and harmful choices that can make extreme weather’s impacts worse.  

Ushering new development away from vulnerable areas and flood-storing wetlands is a big part of this work. In Charleston, we filed a lawsuit to oppose a development on the Cainhoy peninsula that would put thousands of homes in the floodplain and destroy hundreds of acres of wetlands.  

Keeping critical infrastructure and toxins out of the floodplain helps keep floodwaters from making people sick and polluting waterways. We’ve worked to remove coal ash stored on flood-prone riverbanks across our region and are engaging to make sure industrial sites are preparing for the new normal of larger storms. And in North Carolina, where concentrated animal feeding operations lie in areas that have flooded before, we are pushing to ensure that the next hurricane won’t create another pollution disaster for everyone downstream.  

Better information about risk can help residents better prepare for the next storm. In North and South Carolina, SELC worked with local real estate commissions to require disclosure of flood history on real estate forms. With those changes, home buyers will have more information about potential risks and costs associated with a property.  

In Virginia, we worked with partners to help set up the Virginia Community Flood Preparedness Fund that gives local governments the much-needed resources to plan for increased flooding risk adaptation. And in South Carolina, we are working with the new Office of Resilience as they prepare the forthcoming Statewide Resilience Plan that will give residents and communities across the state better information on flood risk and a coordinated plan to address it. 

Houses built on slab-on-grade foundations, like these pictured in Charleston, are most susceptible to flooding. Photo by Brad Nettles/The Post and Courier

Recognizing that good policies underlie good decision-making, we’re also pushing for commonsense improvements. We worked alongside the City of Charleston to pass a ban on a kind of construction practice in the floodplain called slab-on-grade that exacerbates flooding and puts more people at risk of flood damage. We continue to work at the state level in Virginia and South Carolina to set up and defend existing funding for resilience and proactive disaster risk mitigation. And we are making sure that lessons learned from previous storm seasons in our states are incorporated into flood insurance reform, disaster preparedness procedures, and other policy updates at the federal level.  

“Yes, our communities need the right resources to assess, plan for, and mitigate risks of extreme weather,” says Sarah Edwards, SELC Legislative Counsel. “But they also need state and federal partners to ensure their programs and policies account for future conditions so our taxpayer investments aren’t washed away in the next storm.” 

Learn more about how stronger storms and higher tides put coastal communities at risk.