Ecology + Justice + Culture in the American South

Adaptation

This Society of Environmental Journalists’ special report — “Covering Your Climate: The South” — is the second in a series designed to help journalists of all kinds cover the impacts of climate change in their region, and to report on actions taken to mitigate its worst effects and preparations for what can’t be stopped. Below is part four of the special report, a tipsheet with a closer look at climate adaptation in the South.

The project is distributed through SEJournal and the independent, nonprofit media organization Southerly, which covers the intersection of ecology, justice and culture in the American South. Southerly’s Lyndsey Gilpin served as regional editor for this special report.

The grim reality about the climate crisis is that even if we begin aggressively slashing fossil fuel emissions tomorrow, it will take decades for the climate to respond. Even in the best-case scenario, scientists predict sea levels will likely rise a foot by century’s end. Heat waves will persist. Extreme rainfall events will continue to threaten cropland and communities.

The work of “adaptation” is preparing for and protecting against these inevitabilities, and the South has done some of it. But most of the region’s progress relies on its response to events, rather than preparation for the future. And one of the thorniest tasks — relocating homes and communities already underwater or destined to be in a generation — has been left largely untouched.

Virtually every dire impact of the climate crisis is being or will be felt in some part of the South: extreme heat, drought, wildfires, coastal and inland flooding. The Fourth National Climate Assessment — the latest installment of a congressionally-mandated study issued by a team of U.S. government scientists — pinpoints the risks these harms pose to the region’s cities, rural landscapes and coastal areas.

Risk to growing cities

Heat waves are especially pronounced in the region’s cities, where more asphalt and rooftops create an urban heat-island effect. 

Raleigh, one of the communities most at risk, is already nearly 2 degrees warmer during the day than surrounding rural areas, and over 3 degrees warmer at night, according to data from Climate Central. A resiliency plan for the Triangle area recommends design standards for cool roofs — roofs than reflect more light and absorb less heat — and more tree cover in response. 

Some cities are already implementing such measures: Louisville, Kentucky has installed 145,000 square feet of cool roofs on city government buildings, and is offering rebates to get homes and businesses to do the same.

Major storms that cause power outages for days or weeks can exacerbate the risks of extreme heat. Duke Energy, the region’s largest investor-owned electric utility, is just beginning to consider holistic strategies to make the electric grid more resilient, including power outage sensors and microgrids.

Extreme rainfall is expected to hit transportation infrastructure hard, including roads and railways. Transit agencies in Atlanta, New Orleans, Nashville, Tennessee and Tampa, Florida are all working to identify vulnerabilities in their systems and strategies to improve. Water utilities in Tampa, Atlanta and other metro areas throughout the region are also preparing for long dry periods followed by flooding.  

Rural communities at stake

The rural South is by no means exempt from climate catastrophe. The 16 million people living in non-urban areas across the region could suffer disproportionately because they tend to be poorer, less educated and have less access to medical care. Climate adaptation for these Southerners means solving some of these underlying inequities.

The region is home to eight of the 12 states nationwide that haven’t expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act (the five states that have: the Virginias, Kentucky, Louisiana and Arkansas). 

Energy poverty — where households lack access to clean, affordable energy services — is expected to get worse as temperatures rise and people must rely on their air conditioners.  Roanoke Electric Cooperative, serving some of the poorest counties in North Carolina, is one of the few rural coops working to reverse this trend, with programs such as free energy audits and upgrades like added insulation and LED lighting for its members.

Examples of efforts to head off the impact of extreme weather on the agricultural industry are also few and far between. Urban farms in places like Jackson, Mississippi are addressing food insecurity and charting a path for a diversity of food grown sustainability and distributed locally. But there’s little evidence of these projects starting to deploy at the scales necessary to meet the climate challenge.

Wildfires will also hit rural areas disproportionately. Today, most efforts to guard against them take the form of voluntary measures to reduce the chance that buildings will ignite. A national program, Firewise USA, encourages communities to form neighborhood watch groups for wildfires; its action plans include making sure homes use gravel instead of mulch and identifying which structures in the area have non-flammable roofs. 

And while most states have plans for controlling fire under current conditions, especially using prescribed burns, very few envision how to prevent wildfire as the planet warms, according to Climate Central. One exception in the region is North Carolina, whose climate resilience plan includes restoring wetlands and peatlands to serve as a natural barrier against fire. 

Unrecognizable coastline

Perhaps the most heartbreaking and intractable climate impact bearing down on the South is the dual whammy of rising seas and flooding. (In South Florida, a third factor is at play: the region is formed on porous limestone, allowing ocean water to seep up through the ground.) 

These are already having a devastating impact, prompting many coastal communities to pursue an array of strategies to reduce flooding and erosion.

Some so-called “soft” measures, such as dumping more sand on beaches, are shortsighted and short-lived attempts to save oceanfront property. Louisiana’s 2017 Coastal Master Plan is expected to be far more durable; it envisions rebuilding more than 100 barrier islands, ridges and marshlands.

“Hard” mitigation strategies are also popular. As of 2016, according to the National Climate Assessment, the city of Charleston, South Carolina had set aside $235 million to complete “ongoing drainage improvement projects to prevent current and future flooding.” 

In 2015, Miami Beach was just beginning to install 60 enormous underground pumps to — as Elizabeth Kolbert wrote for the New Yorker — “suck water off the streets and dump it into Biscayne Bay.” The first six pumps, Kolbert’s story indicated, cost $100 million. 

Other cities have chosen a cheaper course of action. Rather than invest the $1.4 billion recommended by the federal government for its own set of flood prevention endeavors, including seawalls, levees and pump stations, Norfolk, Virginia, voted in 2018 to require all new or renovated homes to be built on higher foundations

For decades, local governments have also purchased outright homes and businesses with a high risk of flooding. Since 1985, Harris County, Texas has bought about 3,000 properties in and around Houston and restored 1,000 acres of open space, thanks largely to assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The voluntary FEMA buyout program extends well beyond the coast, and some states, like North Carolina, have also established their own targeted buyout programs for inland areas prone to flooding.

None of these efforts, however, confront the reality that some of the region’s most prized cities will be mostly underwater before the century is up. So, too, will the Outer Banks and countless other barrier islands along the Atlantic Coast. Many experts say the people living in these locales need to start relocating now in organized fashion, a process called “managed retreat” rather than waiting for disaster to strike.

Yet the only success story of managed retreat in the region so far is of a tribal community in Louisiana — a tragic throwback to the institutionalized displacement of Native Americans of the 19th and 20th centuries. The effort does appear to be driven by the tribe: After 20 years of lobbying, the Isle de Jean Charles Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw received $48 million from the federal government in 2016 to move some 30 families from the sinking island to higher, more stable ground.

Other efforts have failed. The state of Louisiana tried to buy undeveloped land to move 40 mostly Black families from flood-prone Pecan Acres, but the sale was blocked by the mostly white town, which argued property values would sink as a result.

There’s one type of adaptation just beginning in the region: transitioning communities long economically dependent on fossil fuel production to a new economy. In Fayetteville, West Virginia, an outdoor adventure economy has taken root. In Virginia’s far western corner, a multi-pronged initiative is underway to get the region’s former coal miners working in solar energy, advanced manufacturing and other emerging fields.

Across the South, the hope is that the most severe of these measures won’t be necessary. But staring down the enormous potential economic and societal costs of these projects may push communities to decide to double down on mitigation instead.

Based in Raleigh, North Carolina, Elizabeth Ouzts covers the state’s clean energy transition for the Energy News Network, a role she’s held since 2016. Her writing has also been featured in Environmental Health News. A former director of communications for the nonprofit Environment America, Elizabeth brings nearly two decades of experience in environmental and energy policy to her reporting.