Opinion: Daily Journal

Building back better than the status quo

Hurricane Florence floods Interstate 95 near Lumberton. Photo from the N.C. Department of Transportation.
Hurricane Florence floods Interstate 95 near Lumberton. Photo from the N.C. Department of Transportation.

After a natural disaster, most people strive to restore their normal lives. But, in some cases, the return to normal might not be the best option.

A particular challenge for those leading the recovery after a disaster like Hurricane Florence is deciding when the pre-disaster status quo isn’t good enough.

It’s an issue that already has cropped up in North Carolina’s assessment of damage linked to Florence. The storm’s impact on state transportation networks offers one example.

Florence helped close parts of 2,500 roads across the state. The number peaked at 1,700 roads out of commission at one time. State Transportation Secretary Jim Trogdon compiled those numbers for an Oct. 3 presentation to the N.C. House Select Committee on Strategic Transportation Planning and Long-Term Funding Solutions.

By the time of the meeting, 19 days after Florence made landfall, 126 roads remained out of service. “All the way from Ocracoke Island, where we saw extensive damage, down to Wilmington, Brunswick County, all the way out to Charlotte in the west, all the way up to Ashe and Haywood and Watauga counties, we’ve seen damage in all of those locations,” Trogdon said.

More than 3,100 sites required some type of long-term road repair. Trogdon offered an initial total cost estimate of $266 million, with state taxpayers expected to pick up $66.8 million of the tab. He warned lawmakers that both numbers would grow.

“My guess is, at this point. we’ll have at least half of those done within the next 30 days,” Trogdon said of the long-term repairs. “Some of them will take a little longer.”

Most repairs will return roads to their pre-Florence condition. DOT is also looking to the future, Trogdon explained.

“Equally important, too, is how do we do things to mitigate future damage,” he said. “We are very concerned with flooding of the interstates and closing of the interstates in future storms.”

Florence closed portions of both Interstates 40 and 95 for more than a week. Officials were unable to reopen I-95, a primary north-south road for the entire East Coast, until Sept. 23. That was nine days after the storm’s landfall. I-40 reopened a day later.

“Certain things we can’t stop,” Trogdon told lawmakers. “Huge rainstorms are going to create flooding, and flooding is going to close roads. But we believe there are some things that we can do in the longer term to make sure that, in the future, I-95 and I-40 aren’t as susceptible as they are today.”

State officials are working on strategies with federal highway officials, Trogdon said. “Their reimbursement process, as you can imagine, they typically reimburse to put things back the way they were,” he explained. “We understand those rules. But we’re trying to find some creative ways of getting access to some other funds that will allow us to actually make I-95, in locations, and I-40, in locations, better than it was so in the future it will be less susceptible to this kind of closure.”

Few would challenge Trogdon’s goal of taking steps, within reason, to limit the likelihood of repeat flooding of N.C. interstates. Both 40 and 95 serve as essential elements of the state’s transportation system, especially during times of disaster.

That’s a simple case. But it won’t always be as easy to choose between the pre-Florence status quo and more expensive alternatives. Policymakers tasked with making those difficult choices must sift through competing proposals for upgrades.

Some will fit squarely within the bounds of disaster recovery. Others will represent an attempt to use Florence as an excuse to enact a legislative wish list. (One thinks of the 2009 pronouncement from Rahm Emanuel, then chief of staff to president-elect Barack Obama. “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste,” Emanuel said on national television. “And what I mean by that — it’s an opportunity to do things that you think you could not do before.”)

Attempting to use Florence to advance its pre-existing goals, a left-of-center think tank floated several hurricane recovery ideas recently in the Raleigh News and Observer.

Proactive investment in hazard mitigation infrastructure? That seems like a worthwhile goal. Stepping up regulations of hog lagoons and coal ash ponds? Maybe.

Increasing taxpayer spending on public education and jobs training? Raising the government-mandated minimum wage? Good ideas or not, these proposals seem better-suited to everyday political debate. They can wait.

Policymakers would be wise to prioritize as they continue to assess the hurricane’s impact. It would be a shame to turn a crisis into an excuse for waste.

Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation.