I arrived in Fayetteville in the spring of 1999. Four months later, Hurricane Floyd came ashore in North Carolina and brought the worst flooding anyone had seen. The flood of the millennium, the experts said. My new friends and neighbors playfully held me responsible for Floyd. I must have brought it here from Cape Cod, they said.

In truth, I'd had less experience with hurricanes than most of my neighbors. I'd seen exactly one hurricane in nearly 30 years of living on the Massachusetts coast — Hurricane Bob in August, 1991. It came ashore as a Category 2 storm, did some flooding in low-lying areas, blew down a lot of power lines and then hightailed it into the Gulf of Maine. Earlier in its life, Bob had brushed North Carolina's Outer Banks, but didn't make much of a mess.

Bob's peak winds hit the Cape during the day, which I spent in my office at the newspaper. We had a big generator powering the building, so the lights and air conditioning stayed on. It wasn't much of a hardship post for me. But driving home that night was positively weird. I lived about 20 miles from the office, and I'd never seen it so dark. Other than a few emergency vehicles, there wasn't a light to be seen anywhere. I lived a few hundred yards from the main power transmission lines that ran down the middle of the Cape, so I had power back in my neighborhood by midnight. I can't imagine an easier trip through a hurricane.

Floyd wasn't much worse here, although over to the east of I-95 it got a lot worse. All that flat terrain went under water fast. It was the first full drowning of the little town of Princeville. Sadly, not the last. Because less than two decades later, along came Hurricane Matthew in 2016, submerging all the rebuilt structures in Princeville and delivering a similar soaking to significant portions of Fayetteville and Lumberton as well. So much for once-a-millennium floods.

Last year, it was Houston's turn to experience the floods of a lifetime or two. And this year, along came Florence, which some forecasters said last week was looking like a rerun of the Houston rainfall from Hurricane Harvey. I'm writing this before the storm came ashore, because of early production deadlines, so I'll be following up next week.

But we don't need to wait until next week to start a conversation about the new climate realities we're facing. I'm not about to get into arguments with anyone about global warming or climate change or whatever else you want to call it. I'm certainly not going to debate the causes, or the remedies. But I am going to suggest that we need to stop hiding from a life-changing reality: Sea levels are rising, flooding is getting more intense and tropical storms are dropping more water. Those factors add up to big challenges to public policy — and the public treasury.

On the coastline, it's most dramatic. In many places, from Miami up to Norfolk and beyond, people routinely see coastal flooding that once only occurred during major storms. Now it happens on the full-moon and new-moon tides every month. In some places, it simply happens with most high tides. How long are we going to continue letting people rush like lemmings to the sea, to settle as close to the water's edge as possible, only to see devastation of both public and private property with mind-numbing regularity? How many times do we need to rebuild coastal roads like N.C. 12 before we conclude that there's got to be a better way? How long do we need to watch this before we decide that a retreat from water's edge is the only reasonable and responsible act?

And inland, where we see heavier rainfall than in the past, and regular flooding — and it's blindingly obvious that our stormwater management infrastructure is hopelessly overmatched — when do we stop talking about it and start doing something? It's clear that our flood-zone maps are hopelessly outdated and that people are living where people shouldn't live. And if we don't improve drainage and our capacity to deal with stormwater, we're in big trouble. And yet, many of our politicians want to go backwards, and tell developers it's OK, they don't need to build stormwater retention ponds on their new commercial projects. Just let it run off — into what? Into all the adjoining residential neighborhoods, where residents already have wet feet too much of the time?

Think about that this weekend, as you watch the rain and listen to the wind. Isn't it time to have that conversation — and then do something?

 

Tim White is the Observer’s editorial page editor. Follow him on Twitter @WhatTimSaid. He can be reached at 910-486-3504 or twhite@fayobserver.com. You can discuss this column online by going to fayobserver.com/opinion and clicking on today’s column.