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N.C. experiences increase in extreme weather, residents urge communities to take action

A fallen tree blocks South Columbia St. near Westwood Dr. on Saturday, Oct. 1, 2022, the day after Hurricane Ian made its way through Chapel Hill.

In 2022, the United States experienced 18 different weather and climate disaster events, including droughts, flooding and severe storms, with losses exceeding $1 billion. These extreme weather events resulted in the deaths of 474 individuals and had serious economic repercussions for the areas impacted. 

The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines extreme weather events as unusually severe weather or climate conditions that can cause devastating impacts on communities. These events include heat waves, freezes, heavy downpours, tornadoes, tropical cyclones and floods.

Extreme weather events of this nature have become more frequent in North Carolina in recent years, with 2022 alone seeing the most severe thunderstorm warnings since 2012 and an above-average number of tornado warnings, according to Spectrum News 1. 

Jonathan Blaes, meteorologist-in-charge of the National Weather Service Forecast Office in Raleigh, said the number of billion-dollar weather disasters in the United States has increased tremendously in past decades among more frequent high- and low-temperature records.

“Increasingly, as records get longer and we're looking at this deeper, the signal is there that more extreme weather appears to be occurring more frequently,” Blaes said.

While extreme weather conditions are often noted as a repercussion of climate change, Blaes added that it could be hard to identify if these events are normal increases in the overall trend or if they can be associated with climate change.

“I would always be hesitant to say a storm was caused by climate change,” Blaes said. “That's not an accurate parallel, but what was easy to say, or I think fair to say, is that the environment that would support such storms is likely to be more frequent with climate change.”

Charles Konrad, a geography professor at UNC and the director of the Southeast Regional Climate Center, said while there is natural climate variability, some of these storms can indeed be tied to climate change.

He explained that climate change is increasing the frequency of extreme weather events such as stronger hurricanes, worse droughts and tremendous flooding.

Konrad added that while these weather conditions become more extreme with climate change, people become more vulnerable.

“(Extreme weather) has significant impacts on humans and so any increase in the frequency and the intensities and these extreme events, it's really important and that's why we need to be taking action,” he said.

Greensboro resident Marshall Benbow experienced the effects of these adverse conditions first-hand when two trees fell through his family home during a hurricane in September.

Benbow said while his family is currently dealing with the process of rebuilding their home, they are also processing their grief. 

“You take for granted how much home means to you until you're forced out of it and you can't go back,” Benbow said. “It really took me a little bit to realize that, but there was just a great sense of grief even though we were going to be able to rebuild.” 

While he said his family received fantastic support from their Greensboro community,  he thinks there needs to be a more holistic approach to how people are cared for in the aftermath of an extreme weather event.

“I think that we need a kind of a continuum of care or holistic thought about how we care for folks,” Benbow said. “How do we care for them spiritually, emotionally, physically and financially?”

Kara Mariotti, the crime prevention specialist for UNC Wilmington Police Department, was on duty during Hurricane Florence in 2018. She said more support would be beneficial in the event of future extreme weather events or conditions.

During the hurricane, UNCW students were evacuated from campus while the police department, including Mariotti, stayed to secure the campus and identify problem areas.

Mariotti said events like Hurricane Florence can be crippling. She said it took almost two years to recover from the storm as people were displaced and buildings were destroyed.

“That hurricane was supposed to hit us with a category four,” Mariotti said. “Thank God it didn't hit us at a category one, and if you go back and do any kind of research on it, Highway 40 was shut down. People were displaced from Wilmington — like you couldn't get in or out because the highway itself was literally flooded.”

Mariotti said in the event of future extreme weather, she thinks crews of community members should be on standby to help with things such as cleaning debris or hauling away tree limbs in trucks. She said people in dire conditions also need basic natural resources like water and toilet paper to help them survive.

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While Konrad said mitigating the effects of climate change through things such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions is important to combat these extreme weather conditions, he said the state also needs to reduce human vulnerability to the impacts of climate change.

“This is a huge problem for humankind and we do have time to take action,” Konrad said. “We don't want to say, ‘It's just so bad. It doesn't matter what we do.’ The actions that we take the next five to 10 years down the road can have a huge influence.”


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