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As North Carolina focuses on getting ahead of hurricanes, some residents are hesitant to move

David Owens, left, and John Isola board up windows on a house in Carolina Beach, N.C., on Wednesday in preparation for Hurricane Dorian.
David Owens, left, and John Isola board up windows on a house in Carolina Beach, N.C., on Wednesday in preparation for Hurricane Dorian. (Elijah Nouvelage for The Washington Post)
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NEW BERN, N.C. — A year after Hurricane Florence poured about 8 trillion gallons of water over North Carolina, Teresa Seal is still trying to rebuild.

She and her husband have been living in one upstairs room while they repair their home’s ground floor, which was saturated by three feet of water in the 2018 storm. Neighbors are camped out in RVs, outside of homes unable to withstand another soaking. If Hurricane Dorian strikes, it will be this neighborhood’s third major storm in three years.

For Seal, 51, Dorian is the latest confirmation that climate change may one day cause catastrophic damage to her home, but she has no interest in moving.

“I just don’t feel like starting over,” Seal said. “I told my husband, I don’t care if we have to tent out on the dirt right now — I’m not leaving.”

It’s the kind of attitude that North Carolina officials are combating, as climate change realism settles over this once highly skeptical state. A triple blow of devastating hurricanes — Matthew in 2016, Florence in September 2018 and Michael weeks later — has had a profound impact on thinking here. The debate is no longer about “if” another megastorm will come but “when.”

As a result, state leaders are attempting to shift their approach to extreme weather from reactive to proactive. Among the new strategies is an effort to buy out homeowners in neighborhoods that have been struck multiple times and move them to safer locations. The state recently established an Office of Recovery and Resiliency in part to halt the cycle of destruction and rebuilding, identifying less-vulnerable locations to move people like Seal and her neighbors before they have to be rescued by boat.

But here in New Bern — a river town of about 30,000 people just off North Carolina’s central coast — the logistical and emotional challenges of relocating are clear.

At a recent community meeting about disaster recovery, residents asked state officials to find a way to save the Stanley White Recreation Center, which was heavily damaged by floodwaters in Hurricane Florence — but without moving it.

The only other option, officials said, is to raise the building at least 11 feet. The facility is located in a flood plain that didn’t exist when it was built in the mid-1970s.

“It’s been a pillar of the community for over 40 years,” said New Bern Alderman Barbara Best. “They don’t want to hear that it can’t be rebuilt in its current location.”

Best said it will take a lot of public engagement by city, state and federal officials to convince residents to buy into the concept of “resiliency,” the steps a community takes to anticipate and quickly recover from increasingly frequent and severe weather events.

Moving out of flood plains is a key component of climate resilience. But right now, Best said, residents are deeply attached to their homes and just want to get back to their neighborhoods.

“If they’re in a neighborhood for years and years, it’s kind of hard for the city to come to them and say they can’t rebuild or they have to elevate,” she said. “People don’t want to hear that. They just don’t want to move.”

North Carolina’s new emphasis on resiliency follows 16 other states and the District of Columbia that have developed comprehensive statewide climate adaptation plans. Many of the decisions that affect resiliency are made on a local or state level, including adjusting building codes and zoning laws, regulating local utilities and upgrading storm water systems.

In southeast Florida, four counties — Broward, Miami-Dade, Monroe and Palm Beach — banded together a decade ago to develop a regional “climate change compact” that includes long-term planning on repairing beach erosion, creating salt- and wind-resistant urban tree canopies and increasing the use of renewable energy sources. The U.S. Climate Alliance, a bipartisan coalition of 25 governors formed in 2017 after President Trump announced he would withdraw from the Paris agreement, has extended its focus beyond reducing greenhouse gas emissions to resilience, sharing states’ plans for identifying their climate vulnerabilities and addressing the risks.

Many advocates say more federal action is needed to mitigate the property destruction and other losses caused by the universal threat of climate change, which has no respect for state borders.

“Some aspects of mitigation simply work best at the federal level,” said Heather Hurlburt, director of the New Models of Policy Change project at New America. “But we are seeing more action in large cities and more on the state level than the federal level.”

A spokesperson for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, responsible for federal disaster response, said the agency is “committed to building resilient communities,” including setting aside 6 percent of certain disaster expenses to provide funding for reducing disaster risk. North Carolina, for instance, recently received federal funding for Hurricane Matthew recovery that included $168 million for buyouts and elevating houses like Seal’s.

While the human and financial costs of relocating communities can be huge, the broader financial considerations are compelling: A 2017 National Institute of Building Sciences report found that every $1 spent on mitigation efforts can save the nation $6 in disaster spending.

In North Carolina, a change in administrations drove the shift in focus to climate resilience. Since his election in 2016, Gov. Roy Cooper (D) has pushed a combined strategy of resilience and greenhouse gas reduction, issuing an executive order last year that requires state agencies to adopt policies that support preparing for extreme weather, instead of just responding to it.

Jessica Whitehead, a scientist who worked with farmers and small communities on climate change adaptation, was tapped as the state’s first chief resiliency officer. The state’s director of emergency management, Mike Sprayberry, said Whitehead distilled the importance of integrating emergency management and resiliency in an early conversation.

“She said the best rescue is the one you don’t have to make because you already moved that family out of the flood plain into good, affordable housing,” he said.

The state faces a daunting task in a region where affordable housing was scarce outside of the flood plains even before the storms. The new resiliency office recently announced $16.6 million to build 128 units in the inland cities of in Fayetteville and Goldsboro, but after Matthew and Florence, the deficit of affordable housing in eastern North Carolina went from 190,000 units to 300,000 units.

The office wants to find ways to better leverage federal disaster recovery funds to move residents to higher ground before the next flood. Given the region’s economic struggles and the strong attachment to place in many communities, that will be a challenge, Whitehead said, but a realization is setting in that change is coming.

“People are beginning to realize that we can’t put things back exactly the way that they were and expect a different result,” she said.

Doug Harr, executive director of Religious Community Services in New Bern, which runs a shelter and community kitchen, said that with memories of Florence still fresh, people are having a hard time with the idea of Dorian, let alone thinking further ahead.

“We’ll have to have therapists in the streets if we get hit again this month,” he said. “People will not deal well emotionally.”

For Seal, a case worker for residents still struggling with the impacts of the storms, the ties to home outweigh the realization that extreme weather is a growing threat. With Dorian looming, Seal still believes her only option is to rebuild her home, though hopefully higher than it sits now.

“If not, I guess I’ll just have to build it back like it was and pray,” she said.

Sellers reported from Washington. Ross is a freelance journalist based in North Carolina.