We need new ideas to rebuild after Hurricane Florence

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The water crested at 31 feet, flooded 10 square miles, displaced over 10,000 residents, and caused $6 billion worth of damage.

Occurring on Friday, June 13, 2008, the flooding of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, was considered one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history. But ten years later, it also offers some important lessons as North Carolina seeks to recover from Hurricane Florence.

Immediately following the flood, city and community leaders in Cedar Rapids embarked on an ambitious strategic recovery plan. The first phase focused on flood management. Through a series of open houses engaging 2,680 community members, different options were debated ranging from buying out all 7,000 properties in the flood plain to “armoring the front line” and building a high wall along the river while trying to protect and preserve all vulnerable properties.

Ultimately, the city chose to move 1,500 homes and create a 220-acre “floodplain greenway” — a park that doubles as a levee to help mitigate against future flooding. They also invested in flexible new infrastructure projects such as a detachable storm wall system on the riverfront and worked on improving evacuation planning, flood warning systems, and upstream watershed issues.

All told, flood protection for the area is expected to run over $600 million. To pay for the work, the city has an agreement with the state to use a percentage of sales tax growth for climate resilience measures. However, early tests of the mitigation strategies seem to be paying off. In 2016 the city experienced another potentially catastrophic flood but damage was contained.

Today, the city’s drinking water system and sewer system are protected from any future floods. The drainage system can now be shut off at the river to prevent floodwaters from backing up into neighborhoods blocks away from the river.

The city has also focused on neighborhood reinvestment for the city’s nine flood-affected neighborhoods. Drawing again on significant community input, investments were made in improving pedestrian and transit connections, building a new city market and library, and strengthening and diversifying the city’s emerging entrepreneurial economy. The result: Cedar Rapids has emerged more resilient than ever.

With two major hurricanes hitting North Carolina in the past three years, extreme weather may be the “new normal.”

Like in Cedar Rapids, protecting against future flooding is imperative. Nature-based flood reduction strategies such as wetland creation, floodplain development, and stream restoration, for example, can be done quickly, relatively inexpensively, and yield significant protection from future flooding. Helping the most vulnerable communities relocate to higher ground through coordinated buy-out programs is also going to be important.

This also marks an opportunity to think about how we can help transform and catalyze the local economies in North Carolina’s coastal plain. Given the distance from the coast and major metro areas, the economic drivers of tourism and big business are harder to come by. So how can we help home-grow the region’s entrepreneurial economy that can leverage their natural assets and talent pool?

What is clear is that new models of environmental and economic resilience are critical to rebuilding and re-imagining eastern North Carolina. But rather than a top-down approach, this moment provides a chance to get input and buy-in from a diverse cross-section of community stakeholders to imagine what a better and more sustainable future might look like.