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Intersection: Hurricanes & Climate Change

Staring down Hurricane Florence, September 12th, 2018. Photo: Alexander Gerst, ESA- NASA

Hurricane season is at its peak. As Florence makes landfall in the Carolinas, some communities are still rebuilding from last year’s hurricanes, Irma and Maria. How are communities preparing to be more resilient in the face of these powerful storms?

South Miami Mayor and FIU professor of biological sciences Philip Stoddard, UCF Professor of Environmental Science and Public Administration Chris Emrich and Journalist Cynthia Barnett, who’s currently Environmental Fellow at UF’s Bob Graham Center for Public Service, weigh in on climate change and planning for future storms.

Many homeowners choose not to evacuate during large storms. Mayor Stoddard tells Intersection it’s because of a lack of detail in emergency alerting services.

 “One of the problems we had last year was that we got evacuation orders that came in and they were so coarse in their spatial scale that many people up on high ground were told to evacuate when they really should not have,” says Stoddard.

“The problem is the emergency alerting services don’t take into the fine grain of the maps,” he says.

“This erodes credibility. That’s why people stay put. They say ‘I’ve been told to get out so many times when nothing happened that I just don’t believe those warnings anymore’. It’s sort of a cry wolf problem.”

Mayor Stoddard says he didn’t tell people whether or not to evacuate, he said he gave them better information so they can see for themselves what the risks were.

Emrich says we need to train people to understand the risks so they can make better decisions.

The federal government’s storm surge estimate’s top category is “greater than nine feet” leaving people to wonder exactly how high the water will rise.

Though Hurricane Florence will have a big impact on people living on the coast, there are dangers for those more inland too.

“The big new scientific term is this idea of compound flooding. It doesn’t take a huge inland riverine event coupled with a not huge storm surge that can cause catastrophic consequences,” Emrich says.

Barnett says climate change is becoming easier for people to understand once they are impacted. However, there is a disconnect when it isn’t hurricane season.

“In the wake of hurricanes we have a great unifying spirit. We work together, neighbor helping neighbor, we help each other clean up,” says Barnett.

“The question is can we come together that way all year, all the time to work on this more existential threat of climate change.”

Many communities are now looking into different types of infrastructure to channel water during hurricanes and heavy storms.

Mayor Stoddard says investing heavily in this type of infrastructure now will produce the best payback over time.