Hurricanes have always struck the shores of the United States.
But in recent decades, the combination of climate change and a growing coastal population has made them far more damaging — particularly in one corner of the Atlantic coast.
These two metros, known for their striking coastlines, have been regularly battered by hurricanes this century.
They also have something else in common: Both are among the fastest-growing coastal metros in the United States since 2000.
The hurricanes keep coming, and the people, too: The fastest-growing places along the Atlantic coast this century are also among the most hurricane-prone.
Between 2016 and 2022, the five hurricanes that hit the Carolinas cost the two states over $33 billion in damages in current dollars, displaced hundreds of thousands of people and led to the deaths of more than 90, government data shows.
There’s every reason to expect more damage in coming years: A warming climate adds moisture to the air, unlocking the potential for wetter and more powerful storms. And rising sea levels make storm surges more damaging and coastal flooding more frequent.
And the newcomers will keep coming: One 2022 study projected that by 2050, population growth will increase the number of Americans exposed to flooding nearly four times as much as climate change will alone.
Simply put, there are many more people living along the paths of hurricanes than ever before. And this booming coastal population is, by many accounts, a larger contributor to rising hurricane risks than climate change.
“It’s always climate change plus something, and we’re moving more people into harm’s way than out,” said Kathie Dello, North Carolina’s state climatologist.
Local officials say they are struggling to keep up with the growth. They can try to manage the floodplain, communicate the risks, regulate construction and prepare for disasters. But the one thing they can’t seem to do is stop people from moving here.
Many retirees are drawn to the Carolinas’ beaches and waterways, moderate temperatures and low taxes. Between 1990 and 2020, the number of people 65 and older grew by nearly 450 percent combined in Horry County, S.C., and adjoining Brunswick County, N.C.
When Gail Hart moved from Arizona to retire in Wilmington, N.C., in 2017, she hadn’t considered the hurricane risk. “I wanted to be near a beach,” she said. “I wanted a community.”
The next year, Hurricane Florence made landfall in the Wilmington metro area. Many neighborhoods flooded. In some places, three feet of water entered homes. Emergency officials rescued over a thousand residents.
Ms. Hart evacuated. She was fortunate: Her home suffered only minor wind damage. But the experience changed her view of living there. She installed storm shutters and a generator, and bought flood insurance. And yet, like so many others, she has stayed despite the storm risks.
“I don’t let it affect my life unless there’s a hurricane coming,” she said.
Ms. Hart is far from alone. When she arrived, there were about a dozen homes in her retirement community. Today there are over 500.
In a retirement community being built across the road, acres of pine forests have been cleared to develop homes along the Cape Fear River.
Nearby, marshland with ghost forests of dead trees was up for sale as “riverfront condo land.”
Wilmington is part of New Hanover County, the most densely populated of the state’s coastal counties. Nearly 40 percent of its homes risk being severely affected by flooding in the next 30 years, according to the First Street Foundation.
“There’s just not a lot of area left,” said Steven Still, director of emergency services for the county. “So you’re developing in the fringe areas.”
The escalating costs of storms raise a difficult question for these growing coastal communities: How do you balance growth with safety?
The combination of climate change and development in risky areas is making it “a huge challenge” to keep residents safe, said Amanda Martin, North Carolina’s chief resilience officer.
It’s not just that people are moving to hurricane-prone areas. The growth itself can make flooding worse. Cutting down trees and paving over wetlands takes away open land that would otherwise absorb rainfall.
“We just seem to be going through this vicious cycle that is becoming more vicious with the amount of people and infrastructure we put in these areas,” Mr. Still said.
Federal law permits people to build in flood zones, so long as they meet certain minimum standards. In return, the government offers them flood insurance through a federal program that is over $20 billion in debt — largely due to escalating hurricane damages.
While the National Flood Insurance Program was originally intended to discourage floodplain development, in practice it has done the opposite by removing a lot of the financial risk involved, said Jenny Brennan, a climate analyst at the Southern Environmental Law Center.
States have a few options to discourage people from building in flood zones. They can create more stringent building requirements, or they can buy up and preserve undeveloped land. But these measures are expensive, and rely on political will or the willingness of landowners to sell.
One way that states can move residents out of harm’s way is by offering to buy out their homes and permanently converting that land to open space. But a study this year found that for every home bought out in North Carolina between 1996 and 2017, more than 10 new ones were built in the state’s floodplains.
The growth also makes it more difficult to evacuate when storms strike. In these booming coastal counties, residents and local officials say that roads and bridges are not keeping pace with the growth.
“Our biggest problem is our infrastructures not being able to keep up,” said David McIntire, the deputy director of emergency management for Brunswick County, the fastest-growing coastal county in North Carolina this century and part of the Wilmington metro.
The state has undertaken a multiyear project to add two lanes to Highway 211, the main evacuation route for the region. Mr. McIntire said the state and local departments were “having to play catch-up” after years of failing to plan ahead.
In neighboring New Hanover County, his counterpart Mr. Still is grappling with a shortage of affordable housing, which he said was making it “exponentially difficult” to shelter people displaced by disasters.
After a disaster, the surge in demand for short-term housing drives up already high rents. Poorer residents often rely on the state and local governments for assistance with evacuation and housing.
The problem lies in where to house them. “If there is zero housing availability in the community right now,” Mr. Still said, “where do you put 100,000 people?”
The housing crunch is one of many tensions playing out between wealthy coastal communities and those who live nearby.
April O’Leary lives in Conway, S.C., an inland city in Horry County, a half-hour drive from Myrtle Beach.
The county makes up the Myrtle Beach metro area, which was the fastest-growing coastal metro nationally between 2000 and 2020 and is one of the fastest-growing places in the country annually. And the growth is projected to continue.
Horry County is large and flat: Nearly a quarter of its land lies within a floodplain.
After Hurricane Florence made landfall, it took about a week for the rainwater to flow down to Conway. But the water stayed for over a week.
“It sits for a while and it just destroys everything,” Ms. O’Leary said.
Water entered her home, flooding the first floor and a bedroom. Her husband and son evacuated to Myrtle Beach, while she stayed for a few days to document the floods.
Afterward, there were large piles of debris lining street after street in her neighborhood, filled with ruined flooring, kitchen cabinets and bathroom fixtures.
When her son’s elementary school reopened and he saw the devastation in the neighborhood, she said he stopped smiling and became quieter for months.
After the flooding, Ms. O’Leary founded Horry County Rising, a political organization that campaigned for the county to adopt stricter regulations for floodplain construction. Much of the flooding in the Carolinas during Hurricane Florence occurred outside of federal flood zones, where few people have flood insurance or homes that are protected from flooding.
In 2021, the county expanded its flood zone boundaries to include places that flooded during Hurricane Florence. And it required new homes built there to have their lowest floor three feet above the high water mark.
The changes applied to all unincorporated parts of the county. But they faced pushback from local developers because of raised building costs. The county recently voted to lower the height requirements to two feet, after legal pressure from a developer.
The flooding and growth also affect rural communities that have been rooted in the Carolinas for generations. In Bucksport, S.C., a small inland town in Horry County, Kevin Mishoe is a third-generation farmer and former chair of the Association for the Betterment of Bucksport.
He said the newer building codes would pay dividends in future floods, but they would also make home ownership far more expensive for people in lower-income communities like Bucksport.
Bucksport sits between two major rivers, nestled against wetlands and tidal forests. Mr. Mishoe lives with his wife in a mobile home that flooded during Hurricane Matthew in 2016 and Hurricane Florence in 2018.
Mr. Mishoe says he believes banks are denying loans to residents because of their location in a floodplain, a phenomenon he called “bluelining.”
Meanwhile, he said, locals are being “bombarded” with offers from developers and private equity companies to buy their land.
“All of a sudden land that you’re telling us is almost worthless because you’re in a flood zone, everybody’s trying to buy,” he said.
The area is considered prime real estate because of its access to water. This year, the county expressed support for a highway that would connect Myrtle Beach to inland parts of the county. The highway is expected to cut through Bucksport and its adjoining wetlands, and bring added development to the region.
The town’s residents emphatically do not want to sell their land, Mr. Mishoe said. Their ancestors have held on to this land for generations, and they intend to stay.
Bucksport’s flooding problem began in 2015. But there are coastal Carolina communities that have endured regular hurricanes for over a century.
Karen Willis Amspacher lives on Harkers Island in Carteret County, N.C. — one of the most hurricane-prone counties in the country.
The island is part of a string of low-lying rural communities near the Outer Banks that locals call Down East. The communities are connected by Highway 70, a dredged road that floods several times a year.
Ms. Amspacher is a fifth-generation resident of the island and the director of the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum. There are a lot of newer residents, she said, moving into large houses on stilts, with generators and flood insurance. Some houses are second homes or vacation properties.
The construction boom has driven up costs for locals. “The fear and threat of sea level rise or storms doesn’t hinder any of it,” she said.
While the new homes may be safer, Ms. Amspacher said, many of the newcomers are isolated from the emotional trauma that her community experiences during a hurricane.
“This is a piece of property to them,” she said. “It’s not their family inheritance. It’s not their home. It’s not where they hope their children will stay and grow up.”
Ms. Amspacher has had to evacuate her home in three past hurricanes. But she’s not planning to leave for the next one. She said staying during storms was a way to protect property from damage, and was part of her community’s cultural identity.
“These hurricanes make these communities what we are,” she said.
Back in Wilmington, Sharon Valentine is also no stranger to hurricanes. She owned a large animal farm near Fayetteville, N.C., which was devastated by Hurricane Fran in 1996.
So when she and her partner decided to retire in Wilmington’s Del Webb community in 2017, they knew the risks.
Many others have followed since. “There’s a mass migration down here,” she said.
Ms. Valentine organizes annual hurricane training for these newer arrivals. The community members have evacuation plans and look out for one another.
She, too, said the local infrastructure hadn’t kept up with growth. There are two small bridges on either end of River Road that serve as the main evacuation routes for her community. She is concerned that they may flood in a major storm.
“If we really ever have a bad one, we’re going to have to get out of here,” Ms. Valentine said.
Still, when she thinks about all the newcomers, she sympathizes with their reasons for moving here.
“It is a beautiful place that has a dragon emerge periodically,” she said. “And so you weigh your risks.”
Column: The war on ‘junk fees’ is gaining ground, but the fight is not yet won
“I talk to a lot of of banks,” Rep. Dan Meuser (R-Pa.), told Rohit Chopra, director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, “and they’re really not happy with your agency.”
He urged Chopra to “be responsive to the clientele you’re supposed to be helping.”
With admirable restraint, Chopra replied: “Just to be clear, the clientele of the CFPB is not the banks. The clientele is the public.”
Consumers are fed up with hidden fees for everything from booking hotels and resort fees to buying concert tickets online, renting an apartment, and paying utility bills.
— Federal Trade Commission
The exchange occurred at a hearing of the House Committee on Financial Services on June 14. Leaving aside that Wall Street banks and brokerages have been among Meuser’s leading campaign donors, the congressman was not lying about the bankers’ opinion about Chopra and his agency — in fact, he may have minimized their hostility.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, speaking on behalf of the financial services industry, has called Chopra a “radical” pursuing an “ideologically driven agenda.” Last year, the American Bankers Assn. and two other bankers’ lobby groups published a 21-page broadside against him, calling on Congress and the federal courts to rein him in.
Their ire has intensified in recent months, as the CFPB has stepped up its campaign against “junk fees.” The agency defines these as excessive or unnecessary fees on overdrafts, account information requests, late payments on loans or credit cards, among other charges.
The CFPB’s campaign is part of the Biden administration’s broader attack on junk fees across the U.S. economy — fees that appear on a consumer’s bill at the end of a transaction, rather than being disclosed in advance.
If you’ve rented a car, bought an airline ticket, booked a hotel room or paid a cable bill, you probably know what the White House is talking about: hidden, surprise charges for services you may not even have used, transaction charges for buying online or downloading a concert ticket instead of picking it up at the box office, etc., etc.
These charges have proliferated as retailers and service providers try to raise revenues by “unbundling” services that used to be provided at no extra charge. The quintessential example comes from the airline industry, where baggage fees have soared, reaching nearly $6.8 billion last year among the top domestic carriers, up from $464 million in 2007. Some ostensibly low-cost airlines charge for checked bags and carry-ons.
Biden took aim at the nickel-and-diming of American consumers within six months of taking office in 2021, when he instructed agencies including the Department of Transportation, Federal Trade Commission and Federal Communications Commission to devote close scrutiny to regulated industries’ treatment of consumers.
The administration intensified its campaign on Oct. 11, when Biden, FTC Chair Lina Khan and Chopra jointly announced new initiatives on junk fees.
The FTC’s proposed rule would require businesses to disclose “all mandatory fees when telling consumers a price, making it easier for consumers to comparison shop for the lowest price,” according to a commission statement. The FTC would be empowered to obtain refunds for consumers and impose financial penalties on businesses that don’t comply.
“Consumers are fed up with hidden fees for everything from booking hotels and resort fees to buying concert tickets online, renting an apartment, and paying utility bills … leaving consumers wondering what they are paying for or if they are getting anything at all for the fee charged,” the statement said.
A couple of weeks later, the White House targeted another source of hidden fees — unrepairable products that force owners to pay for servicing by authorized shops — by convening a roundtable on the “right to repair.”
The administration was building on state initiatives in New York, Colorado, Minnesota and California, where a new law going into effect next July 1 requires manufacturers to provide documentation, parts and tools to consumers and repair shops on reasonable terms for any appliances or electronic devices made after July 1, 2021.
As I’ve reported, Apple has long been the worst of bad actors in selling devices that can’t be repaired by users; it began to come around in 2021, when it allowed iPhone users to perform the simplest fixes of broken screens and exhausted batteries. But it’s been backsliding: Owners of its newest desktop and laptop computers can’t even replace or upgrade their internal memory cards.
Government pressure on banks to reduce their junk fees has borne fruit, to an extent. At a hearing of the Senate Banking Committee Wednesday, several bank CEOs testified about their institutions’ determination to reduce or even eliminate overdraft charges. That’s a fee category that long has been an irritant to customers, especially lower-income depositors, and has been a particular target of the CFPB.
JPMorgan Chase Chief Executive Jamie Dimon, for example, told the committee that his bank had introduced “low-cost, no-minimum balance, no-overdraft accounts specifically designed for the unique needs of lower-income and historically underbanked consumers.” He said overdraft fees at JPM Chase had declined by about 50% since before the pandemic.
That’s true as far as it goes — extrapolating from the bank’s nine-month totals, overdraft fees at JPMorgan Chase are on pace to total about $1.11 billion this year, down from $2.06 billion in 2019. More generally, however, JPM’s consumer banking fees have been sticky — they’re on pace to reach about $4.6 billion this year, compared to $5.12 billion in 2019.
Wells Fargo CEO Charles W. Scharf testified that his bank had “announced a number of changes … to help millions of customers avoid overdraft fees.” Indeed, Wells Fargo is on pace to collect $908 million in overdraft fees this year, down from its $1.7 billion in 2019. But the total of all its consumer fees still is on pace to reach $4.1 billion this year, compared to $5.2 billion in 2019.
Nor are all reforms of overdraft fees equal. Some banks that boast of having eliminated overdraft fees, for instance, do so by enrolling their customers in services through which they’ll cover your bills, but charge usurious interest rates for the excess.
The banks’ quarterly and annual reports to the consortium of federal bank regulatory agencies, however, document their difficulty in weaning themselves from those fees and others levied on consumers.
No one suggests that the banks shouldn’t charge fees for specific services, such as for maintaining customers’ checking or banking accounts or overdrawing their accounts or stopping payment on checks. The question is whether the fees reflect the costs of those services or incorporate an overly robust profit. It’s that hidden profiteering that often puts the “junk” in “junk fees.”
Does it really cost a bank $10 to process a checking overdraft? That’s Bank of America’s fee, according to CEO Brian Moynihan, who bragged that it has been reduced from $35. Does it really cost Bank of America $30 to process a stop-payment request, its fee for that service?
One reason these charges are pegged so high is to discourage customers from using those services, but an institution that really values its customers, as all the banks say they do, might think twice about using unnecessary charges to manipulate its clientele into avoiding services they can only get at a bank.
The CFPB is also tangling with the banking sector over an initiative it has launched to clamp down on credit card late fees (perhaps another reason that banks are “not happy” with the agency, to cite Meuser’s gripe).
The bureau has proposed to cap late fees at $8 per missed payment and in no case higher than 25% of the account’s required minimum payment. Under current law, credit card issuers can charge up to $30 for the first late payment and $41 for subsequent late payments — even if they’re a few hours or a day late. As many consumers learn from bitter experience, it’s not unusual for the late charge to exceed what was owed in the first place.
The CFPB calculates that credit card companies extract $12 billion a year from Americans through those charges, not counting the finance charges on unpaid balances; it says its proposal could reduce the toll by as much as $9 billion annually.
The bankers have ginned up an argument that the proposed cap will “ultimately harm all cardholders — whether they pay late, on time or carry a balance,” as Dimon put it to the Senate committee. He said he was quoting from the CFPB’s own findings, but that’s not exactly the point the bureau made.
What it said was that cardholders who carry a balance may be hit with higher interest rates or other fees, but of course that would be the card companies just trying to pump up charges that already are arguably excessive to make up for their losses in late fees.
(The average interest rate on credit card balances was 24.56% in November; the average charge-off of credit card balances among the 100 biggest banks was about 3.57% in the third quarter, which suggests that the banks would still be making gobs of money from credit cards at a much lower rate.)
For the bankers to warn that reducing one fee would force them to raise others is tantamount to their announcing that they’re determined to play an eternal game of whack-a-mole.
The fact is that junk fees permeate the economic landscape. Consumers are on the front line, but they face a tough battle, because junk fees are likeliest to crop up where they can’t easily be avoided. If you have a critical need to change your flight, refusing to pay an airline’s $100 change fee won’t get you where you need to go; it will just leave you earthbound.
That’s why the efforts of the Biden White House and its agencies are so important. Legislation and regulation are the best and fairest ways to eradicate junk fees. But don’t expect that to get very far without an intense backlash from the airlines, banks, hotels and other enterprises for which exorbitant fees for modest services have become mother’s milk.
Sam Altman tells Trevor Noah what he really thinks about his ouster, the dangers of AI and Taylor Swift
When Sam Altman was abruptly fired last month as CEO of artificial intelligence powerhouse OpenAI, the rupture left him with a lot of thinking to do.
But looking back on the experience, Altman told comedian Trevor Noah in a video podcast released Thursday morning, there may have been some upside.
“The empathy I gained out of this whole experience, and my recompilation of values, for sure was a blessing in disguise,” Altman told the former “Daily Show” host in one of his first major interviews since triumphantly returning to the tech company. “It was at a painful cost, but I’m happy to have had the experience in that sense.”
It was one of several subjects the technologist — whose company is behind major consumer AI products such as ChatGPT and DALL-E, making him the face of the current AI boom in many ways — opened up about on the latest episode of Noah’s Spotify podcast “What Now?”
1. Altman was at the Las Vegas Grand Prix when he got fired.
In response to a question from Noah about where he was when he got the news that the OpenAI board had fired him, Altman said he was where a lot of rich, influential Californians were at the time: Las Vegas, for the Formula One Grand Prix.
“I never got to watch any race that whole weekend,” he told the host as the two sat around a simple wooden table in what they implied was OpenAI’s office. “I was in my hotel room, took this call, had no idea what it was gonna be, and got fired by the board.”
His phone started blowing up with messages to the point where iMessage stopped working, Altman added. Employees began quitting; Microsoft, a major investor in OpenAI, was calling people up.
Returning to OpenAI was not yet on his mind, Altman continued, but he knew he wanted to keep working on developing generalized artificial intelligence. He flew back to California and started contemplating his next move.
“It felt like a dream,” Altman said of the experience. “I was confused, it was chaotic. It did not feel real.”
2. He still has some hard feelings about the whole ordeal.
“This was a very painful thing and felt to me, personally, just as a human, super unfair — the way it was handled,” Altman said of his surprise sacking.
It’s still unclear why exactly the OpenAI board tried to push Altman out, although speculation has circled around possible disagreements over how quickly the firm should be trying to develop and commercialize advanced AI systems. Because of OpenAI’s structure, which holds the firm’s for-profit elements subservient to a nonprofit board, the firm does not hold money-making as its core objective. Instead, it aims to develop artificial intelligence for the betterment of all mankind.
The board sought to push out Altman quickly and with the benefit of surprise, subsequent reporting has revealed. But beyond an initial claim that he’s been inconsistently candid in his communications with them, the board has been tight-lipped about what motivated its attempted coup.
The Saturday morning after he got fired, Altman told Noah, “a couple of the board members called me and said, ‘Would you like to talk about coming back?’ ”
“I had really complicated feelings about that,” he added. “But it was very clarifying at the end of it to be like, ‘Yes, I do.’ ”
3. Altman got a firsthand look at what it’s like to lose your job.
In the closing minutes of the interview — which remained amiable for its hour and 15-minute run time — Noah made a friendly but pointed observation that Altman’s firing paralleled the job losses a lot of people fear his technology will bring about at a societal scale.
“Continue to remember that feeling you had when you were fired as you’re creating a technology that’s gonna put many people in a similar position,” Noah encouraged the chief executive.
“Y’know what I did Saturday morning — like early Saturday morning, when I couldn’t sleep?” responded Altman, seemingly referring to the day after his Friday dismissal. “I wrote down: ‘What can I learn about this that will help me be better when other people go through a similar thing and blame me like I’m blaming the board right now.’”
It made him more empathetic, he added.
4. Altman still believes in AI, despite its risks.
For all the boardroom drama of the last month, Altman remains enthusiastic about artificial intelligence — even as he cautions that it will come with downsides.
“This is gonna be a force to combat injustice in the world in a super important way,” he told Noah. “These systems will be — they won’t have the same deep flaws that all humans do. They will be able to be made to be far less racist, far less sexist, far less biased. They’ll be a force for economic justice in the world.”
But, his host asked, is it really possible to make AI completely safe? What is Altman’s nightmare scenario?
Safety is not a binary but a balance between risks and benefits, Altman said, pointing to society’s continued embrace of planes (despite occasional crashes) and pharmaceuticals (which still have side effects).
“But it doesn’t mean things aren’t gonna go really wrong,” he added. “I think things will go really wrong with AI. What we have to prevent” are existential risks, or the threat that AI could wipe out mankind in the same way nuclear arms might.
5. He had some kind words for Taylor Swift.
Altman was just named CEO of the Year by Time Magazine, missing out on the top spot to 2023 Person of the Year Taylor Swift.
But he doesn’t envy her for it, he told Noah.
“I have had more attention this year than I would have liked to have in my entire life,” he explained, and it has at times been tough on his personal life. He’s “happy for Taylor Swift.”
Elon Musk’s SpaceX reportedly valued at $175 billion or more in tender offer
Elon Musk’s SpaceX has initiated discussions about selling insider shares at a price that values the closely held company at $175 billion or more, according to people familiar with the matter.
The most valuable U.S. startup is discussing a tender offer that could range from $500 million to $750 million, said some of the people, who asked not to be identified because the information is confidential. SpaceX is weighing offering shares at about $95 apiece, the people said.
Terms and the size of the tender offer could change depending on interest from both insider sellers and buyers.
A $175-billion valuation is a premium to the $150-billion valuation the company obtained through a tender offer this summer. The increase would make SpaceX one of the world’s 75 biggest companies by market capitalization, on par with T-Mobile USA ($179 billion), Nike ($177 billion) and China Mobile ($176 billion), according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
Representatives for SpaceX, formally known as Space Exploration Technologies, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
The Hawthorne-based company dominates the market for commercial space launch services with its Falcon rockets. SpaceX also sends payloads to orbit for private-sector customers, as well as for NASA and other government agencies.
SpaceX also operates its internet-from-space Starlink service, anchored by a growing constellation of satellites in low-Earth orbit.
SpaceX is on track to book revenues of about $9 billion this year across its rocket launch and Starlink businesses, Bloomberg News reported last month, with sales projected to rise to around $15 billion in 2024. The company is also discussing an initial public offering for Starlink as soon as late 2024 — a bid to capitalize on robust demand for communications via space.
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