At the gateway to Cape Fear: After the storm, North Carolina is a glimpse into a climate-changed future | The Monthly

After the storm, North Carolina is a glimpse into a climate-changed future


American Dispatches by Richard Cooke

American politics and society has rarely, if ever, been as tumultuous as it is today.

October 19, 2018

At the gateway to Cape Fear

By Richard Cooke
After the storm, North Carolina is a glimpse into a climate-changed future

The Cape Fear River at Wilmington, North Carolina

By the time I reached North Carolina, Hurricane Florence had already been upstaged. It was, as the president had said, “tremendously big and tremendously wet”: it had generated more rainfall than any weather event in the East Coast’s history, dropping 30 trillion litres of water (one town received more than 30 inches of rain in two days). But that was before Hurricane Michael, the strongest storm to hit the United States mainland since 1969, made landfall in Florida. Michael all but monopolised the nation’s attention, so the clean-up still going on elsewhere continued anonymously.

Hurricanes in the Atlantic are allocated names before they even exist, which gives them an air of inevitability. The lists of these names are alphabetical, and recycled through seasons, repeating every six years. Since 1953, only one other name currently on the list has been in use for as long as “Florence”. There will probably not be another storm called Florence. After this, the name is expected to finally be retired, as it has caused a degree of damage that will be associated with distress.

The Carolinas are not the most storm-afflicted region of the US, but their easternmost longitude, networks of barrier islands and long rivers do make them unusually vulnerable. Rain swells the blackwater of the Cape Fear River to unfeasible heights. Further north are the Outer Banks, and Highway 12, the exposed and fragile-looking road that makes a tenuous link from Cape Hatteras to the mainland. It has been damaged so many times by rising waters that it may soon be abandoned to the seas, and replaced by ferries. North Carolina is also made susceptible by its politics. It was formerly the most progressive state in the South, but in 2010 Republicans gained control over the state’s upper and lower houses for the first time since 1870, and began peeling back environmental legislation post-haste. They did not, as the late-night host Stephen Colbert joked, make it illegal for scientists to talk about climate change. But scientists were prohibited from forecasting sea level rise into the future, when that could affect real estate prices.

This was cartoonish, but not so different from what other legislatures were up to. Just as Michael was making landfall, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released an urgent report assessing that “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” would be required to prevent dangerous levels of global warming. It wasn’t going to happen. The “alarm bells” that kept ringing were treated not like fire alarms but like car alarms, their clamour ignored. The world had already decided on its policy through inaction. This was climate change mitigation, and I wanted to see what that looked like. It was hard to say if Florence had been made meaner or longer by climate change, but, along with sea bass fisheries moving as far north as Maine, cyclogeneses beginning before the hurricane season proper had begun, and a coterie of other “hundred-year storms” occurring every few years, it was taste of what was coming. An arrival.

Wilmington, the place known as the “gateway to Cape Fear”, was written up as one of the places worst hit. The roadside woods en route still tasted wet and close; there were piles of smouldering wicker in fresh clearings, and earth movers at work among the trees. The debris was arranged almost tastefully. The subsiding water had left behind tonnes of silt on the forest floor, which piled up like sandcastles around the trunks. An occasional big softwood had been torn down by the wind: a rough ring count said it had outlasted a century of storms, but not this one. Thousands of fish had been stranded on the tarmac of Highway 40, and had to be hosed away by firemen. There were still many hog carcasses unaccounted for (the storm had drowned 3500 pigs and perhaps three million chickens), and there were rumours they had wound up here in the woods too, or deep in the tea-coloured river. It had reeked for a few days after the weather had fined.

Skewed signage announced the town. The clean-up was at its tail end, but there was still a lot of work to do. Most roads had turned into avenues of chainsawed logs; some displaced root-balls were too big to shift yet. An oak nestled on top of a neighbour’s car, like it was supposed to be there. On my street, a man a named Applejack worked the yards with a blower. Applejack had ridden on a bicycle all the way from Burgaw, one of the places far away upriver. He was 73, didn’t look it, and had eight children, and two sets of twins. “One woman had told me – Applejack, you stay away from me the way you make babies!” he said, and the youngest of the twins were five. His home had been lost, and his family was staying in a shelter still, where the men and women were separated, and there was no talking after lights out. When Applejack had entered his storm-ruined house with a woman from Federal Emergency Management Agency, together they had encountered a monstrous snake on one of the beds.

Not every house had a tarped roof or boarded windows, but Wilmington’s gardens remained covered in swirls of brown leaves. They had turned on the ground – the canopy foliage above them was still green, although it was mid October, and even in West Virginia, where I had just come from, the seasonal colour was long overdue. The hurricane had jump-started autumn, stripping the leaves that had failed to fall. There were piles of carpet and shattered wood, unbroken windowpanes removed wholesale, upended garden furniture, doors thrown half-way across the block and onto the pavement. At the centre of one pile of detritus I found a soiled and dismantled cat gymboree. It was pathos-inducing. 

Downtown, the Riverwalk had had its pontoons rumbled, but some businesses right on the threshold on the water had been spared flooding, saved by a high shopfront or judicious sand-bagging. A beachy womenswear boutique was untouched – the river tides had run so high they had sandbagged every night for weeks. More than a dozen clean-up workers in hazard masks were busy inside a colonial redbrick with a tower. They pulled black bag after black bag out in a human chain, packing them loosely into the tray of a tip truck. “What is it?” I asked. “Dust,” said one of the workers, unconvincingly. 

It was more likely mould – the building was old, and they were excavating the basement. As I watched, a man sidled up to me, and began talking in a real-life version of hammy expository dialogue. “That’s the old serpentarium,” he said, speaking Southern Gothic. “The snake museum. Run by an odd couple. The woman killed her husband. She was acquitted just today, as it happens, by reason of insan-ah-tay.” Many of the serpentarium’s serpents had been collected illegally. They had improper papers, and after the murder, they could not be rehoused and had to be euthanised. The owner had been obsessed with weather-related conspiracy theories, and had at one stage dedicated an exhibition wall to the study of chemtrails.

Nearby, one hall full of touristy emporia had been spared because it was an old slaughterhouse, with angled floors and a drain underneath. They had not seen blood for many years, perhaps a century, but still knew how to sluice away the floodwater. Wilmington was going to be okay. It had money and a tax base, and was being cleaned up. The worst hit places were upriver or offshore, at Burgaw or New Bern or Surf City. The “hold-outs” in these places were often too poor to evacuate, or had nowhere to go. At Fayetteville the water had swollen to impossible heights, 64 feet. At Rocky Point, fresh-built houses were inundated up to the ceiling, and whole pens of locked-in livestock drowned. Piles of coal ash, or the content of “anaerobic lagoons”, oceans of pig shit that are the by-product of industrial hog farming, all slipped into the waterways.

There was an irony: the places with most media coverage had received less attention from the storm. I went to Wrightsville Beach, a wealthy, white-sand coastal community that had almost become a kind of hurricane media headquarters over the years. There I met Tracy Skrabal, a local coastal scientist. She had a paddleboarder’s freckles and a storm-borne patience. “It’s kind of bizarre,” she said. “Here at Wrightsville Beach we’ve been the eye of Bertha, Fran, Floyd, Matthew – I can’t even name them on one hand, the storms since the mid ’90s that have raked right across Wilmington. We’re sort of set up for the media.”

Jim Cantore was one of the men she had in mind, a Weather Channel star who faced down cyclones in skiing goggles, and did a Marcel Marceau act into the gales. “While he was covering Hurricane Matthew a few years ago,” Skrabal said, “he went down to Lumberton, a very poor area on the Cape Fear River that was decimated. And he couldn’t get out. He had to stay in this really skanky hotel. With no power and no food and no anything. And it probably wasn’t that fun.” That was why they came here instead. 

This time in Wilmington, the Weather Channel’s Mike Seidel had been caught pantomiming, bracing and hunching into the maelstrom – until two upright passers-by walked calmly behind him. “It’s important to note that the two individuals in the background are walking on concrete,” the network claimed, “and Mike Seidel is trying to maintain his footing on wet grass, after reporting on-air until 1:00 a.m. ET this morning and is undoubtedly exhausted.” A nice try. 

The coverage was not just exaggerated, but made a kind of appeal to folklore, where a weather report was as tall as a fisherman’s tale. It was singularly unhelpful in understanding the true threats. “They spent more time covering the looting of the Dollar General store downtown,” Skrabal said, “and the prosecution of those looters – who took diapers – than they spent getting out into the Cape Fear River.”

There was almost a misplaced romance about it, like a climate-changed future would be as rugged as a wave-lashed Old Spice commercial. Not all conservatives in North Carolina were true climate change sceptics – the evidence was becoming irrefutable – though they preferred euphemisms like “storm adaptation” instead of the more pertinent “sea level rise”. But if climate change did come, it would be test of mettle, as though the sea was a frontier, and we were all pioneers.

Skrabal spent the aftermath hiding in a closet with two 80-year-olds, waiting out active tornado warnings. “Once you do it, there’s nothing glamorous about it anymore,” she said.

“My brother used to call me and say, ‘I wish I was there to ride out a hurricane.’ Then he went through a smallish one and said, ‘I’ve changed my mind.’ It’s life or death. It really is. This last one – I knew I was going to be at elevation 27. I knew no trees could hit my house. And I still thought, ‘Why didn’t I leave?’

“These storms are all environmental justice issues. The scary thing is that those communities on the Cape Fear River – it wouldn’t matter if it was a one or a two or a three or a four – they wouldn’t have evacuated. They don’t have a car. They don’t have anywhere to go. They have animals. And they truly truly, until you’re in it, don’t believe you can die.”

Even the Cape Fear Riverkeeper had lost his house for a second time. It was low-lying, and had been wiped out in Matthew, then rebuilt, and then wiped out again. “Does he know better? Hmmm,” said Skrabal. “I’m not criticising him, but you get the human nature part of this. It was his dad’s home. It was a little house.” 

That was made it so dangerous. It was a not a death instinct, the desire to rebuild or to master. It was life, teeming on the banks, but no longer in harmony. The frontier was shifting. “At some point it is no longer romantic or badass or pioneer spirit,” she said, glancing towards a canal we could not quite see from our vantage point. “At some point you lose people.”

Richard Cooke

Richard Cooke is The Monthlys US correspondent and contributing editor. 


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