August 29, 2008

After a Long Dry Spell, Storm Ushers in Relief

With rainfall nearly nine inches below normal, Greensboro residents prayed for storm clouds earlier this week.

Those prayers were answered with a deluge of nearly 5 inches from a fading Hurricane Fay, and more could be on the way, depending on Gustav's meanderings.

Confronted with a good old "frog strangler," emergency responders performed admirably. In Greensboro, police blocked off flooded roadways and rescued water-logged motorists.

To our south, rising water took a greater toll. Over a three-day period, Charlotte recorded up to 11 inches of rain. Hundreds of homes were damaged or evacuated, roads became impassable and schools closed. Emergency crews in Mecklenburg and Cabarrus counties were stretched to the limit.

The Piedmont's persistent drought has minimized the hazards of living in low-lying floodplains and created a false sense of security.

Latham Park off Wendover Avenue, one of Greensboro's most vulnerable areas, faced rising waters from Buffalo Creek Wednesday morning. Residents soon found water lapping at their doorsteps. Over the years, they've grown accustomed to such occasional storm- related inconveniences.

Charlotte has chosen to deal more proactively with flooding. A county ordinance sets aside local funds to buy threatened homes and apartments. It also sets tough standards for renovating property with a goal of making it less susceptible to damage.

Legislation, however, can't take the place of common sense. Building on a floodplain only invites trouble. For starters, zoning for land that might be in harm's way should be highly restrictive and limited in scope.

As residents of New Orleans can attest, the 100-year storm doesn't always wait that long for a return visit. That's even more evident as current projections put Hurricane Gustav somewhere between Pensacola, Fla., and Galveston, Texas, Monday night with New Orleans quite likely at ground zero.

Tragic lessons learned just three years ago when Katrina devastated much of coastal Louisiana and Mississippi have resulted in better "pre-landfall" planning, including possible mandatory evacuations. National Guard troops already have been activated, shelter preparation is under way and FEMA food and medical supplies are in place. But no matter where Gustav makes an unwelcome appearance, a repeat of the chaos, confusion, lawlessness and human suffering in Katrina's aftermath can't be tolerated.

Meanwhile, North Carolina's coastal interests should take note. Forecasts of an active hurricane season could mean we also might be treading water this fall.

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