Thoughts on water, living with water, and storms

This is some stage of Arthur, off Topsail Island, NC, July 2014

We’re drawn to water and connected through water, especially gardeners. Most of the gardeners I know—not just in WNY but all over the US—spend half their growing seasons hoping for water in the form of rain. They have rain gauges and weather stations and use apps and websites to monitor annual rainfall in their areas. They have become amateur rain scientists. Gardeners try to save rain with rain barrels and to stop it from running out into storm gutters—as much as they can—through creating rain gardens and other plantings that capture water.

We revel in water as humans, seeking out opportunities to swim, splash, and float. I’m often scheming about how I could get a small, good-looking pool installed, and I haven’t given up. I love beaches even more. For years, we have spent at least one summer week on the beautiful coast of North Carolina, a place very familiar to me from childhood summers spent there when my father was in the USMC Reserve. Given the number of summers, and, later, visits, it’s inevitable that we’d encounter hurricanes now and then, and we have; our family started coming down just after the one everybody still talks about, Hazel. None of the storms we’ve encountered called for evacuations or drastic measures; as a child, I found them exciting.

Over the past 20 years, however, the number of hurricanes hitting NC and throughout the US are having increasingly devastating effects on property and ecosystems. University-based studies confirm that storm surges are getting bigger and bigger, though a 2010 NC Coastal Resources Commission study about the surges was banned by state government. The question of whether climate change increases the chances of these storms is in some ways not even relevant; a bigger factor is that far greater numbers of residential and business populations are in the path of this weather, whatever is causing it. And they’re not ready for it.

One does not judge where people choose to live or need to live. I can’t imagine dealing with yearly incidences of tornadoes, wildfires, and earthquakes, which are not common where I live. But then, many others cannot face the possibilities of freezing cold weather, snow, and occasional blizzards. So be it.

However, to ignore weather and climate trends in the face of loss of human life, damage to ecosystems, and destruction of property makes no sense. In 2012, North Carolina passed a law that effectively ordered state and local agencies that develop coastal policies to ignore scientific models showing an alarming acceleration in sea level rise. Since then, storm surges (including Florence, the most recent) have engulfed homes and flooded areas with waste from pig farms and toxic disposal sites. These events also cause fish kills and algae blooms.

If the study had been accepted and measures taken to adjust developments, reinforce at-risk infrastructure, and take other precautions specific to storm surges of a nature never before anticipated, could the disaster we’re now seeing unfold (and have seen unfold so many times elsewhere) be averted? I suppose we don’t know. And we’ll never know as long as the denial of science continues to be government policy at so many levels. Maybe once we’re all under water, we’ll figure it out.

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regular radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world, and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at


  1. “University-based studies confirm that storm surges are getting bigger and bigger, though a 2010 NC Coastal Resources Commission study about the surges was banned by state government. “–That’s sad and irresponsible. I don’t get it either. Was it politically, financially or culturally motivated? I realize you did not definitively state the floods were due to climate change and that’s okay. However, I do know that where I live, everyday citizens vehemently deny climate change or simply ignore it. My former handyman is a staunch non-believer. For myself, I can say that water framed my entire summer because of a severe drought in my area. This is why most of the plants I ordered this fall are drought-tolerant. I’m looking toward the future. I’m not in denial, and yes, I believe in science MOST of the time.

    • That was informative.–Makes you definitely think twice about buying/building in a 500 or 1,000 year old flood plain. I remember hearing about an Austin neighborhood who refused to cooperate with the City in terms of infill (the City wanted less suburban sprawl) because there had already been so much infill of housing and commercial buildings that the long-time homes were being flooded since the water had nowhere to go.

  2. I recently spoke with an older couple who have a home on a river near the Pamlico Sound in NC, as well as a vacation home on the beach in the Outer Banks. They said they were struggling with what to do as they age about their vacation home, which they can’t sell for anything near what they paid years ago, because it’s uninsurable and everyone knows the area is in trouble with flooding, so it’s hard to even find anyone to consider buying there. Also they love the house. I told them I’d enjoy it for as long as it’s there and then just let it go when it goes–you can’t take it to the grave with you. Now I fear they may have lost both homes to Florence. I also read that 90% of the homes along the NC coast are uninsured, so rebuilding in the future in that area may be a moot point.

    • And yet we see post-hurricane rebuilding regularly on Topsail, the barrier island that we visit (and would never ever consider buying property on).

  3. I may be wrong, but my sense was that those NC regulations would apply to new build. That would not make much of a difference to a lot of those who are now flooded. As is sadly so often the case, the (mostly) inland poor get the shaft, and the coastal rich rebuild their vacation homes. It is staggering that only 10 percent of these homes are insured against floods! It is criminal that this is our system.

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