From the editor: Evading disasters

October 25, 2018

With Hurricane Florence headed for North Carolina in mid-September, the vital parts of Duke were appropriately prepared. For Duke Dining, that meant securing 400 pounds of rice, 460 pounds of broccoli, 1,000 pounds of potatoes, and 1,200 pounds of chicken. There was attention, of course, to other vulnerable populations: The Lemur Center reported that its dry-storage areas had been “stocked with several weeks’ worth of nutritionally complete primate chow,” while staff had filled water barrels, removed potentially windblown hazards like signs and banners, and cut four days’ worth of “browse,” or fresh leaves critical to the digestive health of sifakas.

Even as the main campus would be largely spared, the coastal campus, the Duke Marine Lab in Beaufort, would suffer some structural damage. Pre-hurricane, the lab was evacuated; its official tweets declared that “the hatches are battened down.” The tweeting also boasted about Beaufort’s “first-responder mayor,” Rett Newton, a retired Air Force colonel and a Duke doctoral student. CNN and NPR, among others, were featuring him as he surveyed the rain-drenched and windswept scene.

As Florence finally faded, various Duke experts were assessing the aftermath. The New York Times highlighted the insights of Avner Vengosh, a professor of earth and ocean sciences, on health issues linked to coal ash—the toxic, powdery substance that remains after burning coal. Some coal ash was released with the rising floodwaters, but, as Vengosh pointed out, in hard-to-discern quantities.

The hurricane also flooded dozens of waste lagoons, which brought new relevance to a Duke study of industrial-scale hog farms. The study’s primary researcher was Julia Kravchenko, an assistant professor in the surgery department who participates in the Environmental Health Scholars Program. She told The News & Observer of Raleigh: “We can tell that proximity to large hog farms is definitely associated with worse health outcomes for certain diseases.”

Writing on The New Yorker’s website, law professor Jedediah Purdy tied some of what Florence fomented—including the coal-ash and waste-lagoon issues—to long-enduring inequities. He noted that the modern environmental-justice movement was born in Afton, North Carolina, in a fight over the state’s decision to dump contaminated soil near a poor, historically African-American community. A “natural disaster,” he noted, “is at least half non-natural, the product of a natural event and the infrastructure that it floods, shakes, or ignites.”

If there was a hurricane-commenting voice that was both expert and poignant, it belonged to Orrin Pilkey. An emeritus professor of earth sciences, Pilkey has written numerous books about living with water and an eroding coast, including coauthoring Retreat from a Rising Sea: Hard Choices in an Age of Climate Change. State law favors property-development interests, he told NPR, and it assumes the sea will rise only inches, while scientists predict sea-level rise measured in feet. His tough message in the wake of Florence: Not all of the communities devastated by the hurricane should be allowed to recover.

Pilkey’s writing has extended to Duke Magazine. In an essay for the magazine, he lamented the notion that “nature at the beach is something to be confronted and defeated” and the resulting push for “beachfront urban renewal.” The potential for damage from hurricanes increases every year, he said. “Sea level is rising, and the rate of this rise should soon accelerate. Global warming is expected to increase storminess in the North Atlantic, and more storms generally mean even more erosion. More buildings crowd the retreating shoreline, and, each year, the average size of threatened beachfront buildings becomes larger.”

In the policy realm, though, ideology often triumphs over empirical reality. Pilkey wrote that essay back in the summer of 2005. And since then, development in coastal states like North Carolina has hardly retreated from the sea.

  • As editor, Bliwise has overall responsibility for editorial direction and content and for representing the magazine to its various constituencies. He also teaches a seminar in magazine journalism through Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy.