How Homebuilders Made North Carolina Vulnerable to Florence

Flash flooding covers the road in low-lying areas in Atlantic Beach, N.C., as the outer edges of Hurricane Florence begin to affect the coast on Thursday.
Flash flooding covers the road in low-lying areas in Atlantic Beach, North Carolina, as the outer edges of Hurricane Florence begin to affect the coast on Thursday. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Over the past five years, the North Carolina Legislature has done homebuilders a series of favors. In 2013, it decided to update the statewide building code to international standards once every six years instead of once every three. In practice, Bloomberg’s Ari Natter writes, the change means the state will often be slightly behind current best practices.

But legislators are still making amendments: In 2015, the state stopped requiring homeowners to permanently anchor storm shutters. And in 2014, the state scrapped a piece of the 2012 code requiring new construction in the flood zone to rise a foot or more above the FEMA base flood elevation—an extra distance contractors call freeboard.

Each of those changes was supposed to make it easier and cheaper to build houses, but recent homebuyers may now be ill-prepared for what Florence will bring this weekend. Despite slowing wind speeds that have brought the storm down to a Category 2 hurricane, Florence still has the lower North Carolina coast in its sights for record storm surge and rainfall starting Friday.

The switch to a six-year code update came shortly after the state Legislature’s moratorium on accounting for accelerated sea-level rise predictions in government reports—another construction-friendly measure undertaken at the behest of coastal real-estate interests.

The state’s development practices will certainly worsen the damage wrought by Florence. As I wrote on Wednesday:

In the Carolinas, as along the Gulf Coast, growth has been characterized by a fast-and-loose approach to water management laws. Older developments sit in the flood plain; newer ones sprout unregulated or win exemptions from tax-hungry governments. South Carolina’s devastating 2015 flooding was characterized by the failure of little-regulated, privately owned dams, some of which had been built to create artificial lakes for suburban homeowners…. In coastal North Carolina, population density has more than doubled in the past 50 years as natural land has been transformed from villages, forests, and wetlands to suburban sprawl. The ongoing loss of natural areas that would have once served to dampen the impact of both storm surge and stormwater will change the way those phenomena affect even houses that didn’t flood during, say, the rainstorms that ravaged the state in 1999. 

But only a small fraction of homes and projects in the storm’s path will have been affected by recent changes to state and local building codes—most were originally built years ago (and therefore may be even more vulnerable to flooding). Still, if Florence does wind up flooding a lot of houses, homeowners will be rebuilding to a standard that varies widely from place to place.

Most coastal communities have their own building codes that go above and beyond what’s required by the state in various complicated ways. And while each place does indeed have its own level of risk, the FEMA floodplain is supposed to designate risky areas across municipal boundaries.

A new house in Nag’s Head—which sits on the Outer Banks—must have living space at least a foot above FEMA’s base flood elevation. In Wilmington or Pitt County, that requirement is 2 feet. Other North Carolina jurisdictions go up to 3 feet. But if you’re in a county with no special requirement, your living room doesn’t have to rise an inch above the FEMA base flood elevation. The result of all this variation? A natural experiment in how regulations prepare—or don’t prepare—communities for storm surge and stormwater.