Two major hurricanes hit North Carolina in the last month, and while the damage was severe to some parts of the state, damage from flooding in the Charlotte area was less than it would have been a decade ago. This is due to many years of hard work and preparation in the making.
It all started in 1995 after Tropical Storm Jerry. Charlotte homes flooded and the storm led to $5 million in property damage. However, as time passed, residents and local government officials forgot how bad the flooding had been.
It wasn’t until Hurricane Danny in 1997 that major flooding hit Charlotte again. The major difference from the ‘95 flood to the ‘97 flood was there was a number of homes that flooded, yet, they were outside of Charlotte’s mapped floodplain. This raised doubts about the accuracy of Charlotte’s floodplain maps. In addition to all of this, came pressure from people who lived in neighborhoods that flooded for the second time in three years. It was clear that local support for a new, proactive approach to flooding had to be a priority.
The first step Charlotte took was buying out homes that were in floodplains- areas that are prone to flooding because they’re right by creeks or rivers that are prone to flooding. With federal grants from FEMA, as well as funding from the county, Charlotte initiated a home buyout program. Since 1999, the program has bought out more than 400 homes in floodplains and demolished them- ultimately restoring creek and river banks over time. All in all, the buyout program cost more than $71 million. However, the buyouts have saved $27 million in property damages, according to the county. During Hurricane Florence alone, the program saved $1.9 million.
It is important to note that buying out houses and tearing them down isn’t sustainable in the long-term by itself. Stormwater flood sensors were also placed at rivers across the city. This sensor sends a beam down to the water, which then determines the distance between the sensor and the water. All of those sensors make up FINS, or the Flood Information & Notification System which track flooding in real time. Once the water elevates to where it’s going to breach over the road, the fire department then gets notified before any people or roads bear the cost. While the real time emergency notification system is useful for first responders, it didn’t solve a bigger issue Charlotte was facing- outdated maps.
Most states use the flood maps FEMA provides. However, at the time in the 1990’s, a lot of these maps hadn’t been updated for North Carolina since the 1970s. FEMA didn’t have enough money to update all the flood maps across the country constantly. So, local governments worked together to set aside a couple million dollars to map flooding. This included a new process called “future conditions floodplain mapping.” This process takes land development and use into account, and helps determine how cities can best orient themselves to avoid damage from flooding. To accurately map flooding, the state partnered with FEMA and the U.S. Geological Survey.
The program in Charlotte was getting off the ground when another hurricane hit the state in 1999, Hurricane Floyd. At this time, politicians got the North Carolina General Assembly on board with tracking rivers in real time and making future conditions floodplain maps for the state. Unfortunately, in most states, it’s hard to get legislators to budget for expensive services such as this, especially when many still rely on old maps. Other states such as Alabama and Florida partnered with North Carolina to develop similar mapping programs. States even talked to experts on flood mapping in North Carolina to help their own programs.
The Charlotte case study is a great example of efforts that could be made by other communities in flood mapping and efforts to decrease damage from flooding. The success of all the planning and preparation is credited to a willingness for the city, county and state to adapt. Ultimately, the answer that worked was a “no” to flood prevention, and “yes” to damage prevention.