Photo: South Buffalo Creek flows past Pinecroft Place apartments in September 2018.
There’s no point in tiptoeing around the issue to protect some climate-denier’s tender sensibilities.
“The new norm is different than maybe years past when it comes to flooding and extreme weather we’ve had,” Greensboro Assistant City Manager Christian Wilson said. “In our planning for emergency preparedness and sheltering and everything else, we’ve had to shift the way we think, because it’s more frequent and it’s more extreme.”
Kristine Williams, assistant director of water resources, was even more pointed during her presentation to Greensboro City Council on Tuesday afternoon.
“The climate change issue is affecting us,” she said. “We are seeing more frequent and intense rainfall. And that’s happening more often. And we will probably continue to see that.”
Greensboro doesn’t have to contend with sea-level rise, as do coastal cities like Hampton Roads, Va., Miami and New Orleans. North Carolina’s third-largest city is at the headwaters of the Haw and Deep rivers, which both contribute to the Cape Fear watershed. The challenge for Greensboro is that the narrow streambeds of the North Fork and South Fork of Buffalo Creek, which cover most of the city and feed into the Haw River, are ill-equipped to absorb sudden and intense rainfall.
“We know that the intensity of the rain is really what has gotten us lately,” Mayor Nancy Vaughan observed. “As it comes down, there’s really no place for it to go because it comes so quickly. If it falls over hours, it has the ability to dissipate. If it falls in an hour, there’s just no place for it to go.”
The city’s storm sewer network is not designed for the volume of rainfall that Greensboro has been receiving.
“Our pipes are built for 10-year rains, and we are seeing 100-year rains with pretty regular frequency,” Vaughan said. “And we’ve got pipes that are built for 10-year rains. We can see that we’re going to be playing catch-up for quite a while. I think as we’re looking at the Comprehensive Plan that this is going to have to play a bigger part of it.”
Average yearly rainfall in Greensboro is 42 inches, Williams told council members. But rainfall for 2019 totaled 64 inches, and 70 inches the year before that.
Williams characterized the flooding as “devastating,” noting that it has damaged not just homes, but also cars and HVAC units.
And it’s affecting areas that aren’t supposed to flood.
“Urban flooding has been one of our biggest problems that we’ve had, and we had it all over town,” Vaughan said. “The issues that our property owners had — homeowners — and while people may be required to have flood insurance if they’re in a flood plain or a flood way, we have seen people who are not flood ways or flood zones that are flooding all over town, and that are having significant property damage.”
Vaughan told her fellow council members on Tuesday that Greensboro needs to look at providing incentives to developers to build vertically so that the city can preserve green space to absorb rainfall.
“Because when we look at retention ponds, sometimes they’re just a thimble, when we look at the intensity of the rain,” she said.
The city is already incurring costs from climate change through a program to buy out property owners in flood-prone areas and by providing funds to help others elevate their homes.
The city purchased property through its property-acquisition program as recently as November, Williams said.
The program prioritizes properties that have absorbed repeated losses through flood damage and properties where flooding presents a public-safety concern, Williams said. If the property owner isn’t interested in selling, she said, the city will consider assistance to help them elevate their homes.
Staff plans to bring a proposal to city council at its next meeting to purchase another property, and to apply to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for funding to cover buyouts and modifications.
Councilwoman Sharon Hightower asked staff to look into policy changes that would require multifamily housing developers to get approval before building in flood-prone areas and to give the city the power to reject permits because of flood risk in some extreme cases. She said she’s afraid the city will end up buying out developers without adequate regulations in place.
So, if it wasn’t completely clear before, whether through regulation or buyouts, we’re in the new era of managing the adverse consequences of the climate crisis.
“When you see what happened in July and August this [past] year with the amount of rain that we had week after week, the ground didn’t even have the chance to begin to dry, and it just kept coming,” Mayor Vaughan said. “And we had pretty significant rain not all that long ago. And there was some flooding I think just two weeks ago. This is an issue that’s gonna stay with us.”