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Elon Poll: After Hurricane Florence, North Carolinians believe climate change impacting coast, support environmental policy changes

The Elon University Poll also explored how North Carolinians were impacted by Hurricane Florence, how they might confront the next hurricane that hits the state and how they believe leaders responded to the storm, among other topics.

As the remnants of Hurricane Michael enter North Carolina and the state experiences its second major storm in a month, a new Elon University Poll explores how threats to coastal communities and potential environmental disasters are being viewed by N.C. voters and how they are approaching policy questions related to climate change.

The Elon Poll also sought to find out how people throughout the state were impacted by Hurricane Florence, what they did to prepare and what they might do differently next time.

In its exploration of climate change and environmental regulation policy, the poll found strong support for restricting real estate development in flood-prone areas (76 percent) and for increasing environmental regulations for coal ash ponds (72 percent). Sixty-two percent support incorporating findings from climate change scientists into local government planning and ordinances and 59 percent support increasing environmental regulation for hog farms.

More than eight out of 10 said that climate change is “very” or “somewhat” likely to negatively impact the coastal communities of the state within the next 50 years, a slight uptick from when the Elon Poll asked that question in April 2017. More than half of respondents (54 percent) said hurricanes are getting more severe, while 43 percent said they are staying the same.

North Carolinians were generally prepared for the high winds and heavy rains brought by Hurricane Florence to the state during mid-September, according to the survey. About three out of four registered voters in the state said the warnings leading up to the storm were on target and that when the next storm threatens, they will prepare the same way as they did for Hurricane Florence.

“Because of both the scale of the storm and changing forecasts over time, Hurricane Florence led to warnings for almost every county in North Carolina,” said Jason Husser, director of the Elon Poll and associate professor of political science. “As a result, Hurricane Florence provides a valuable case study to assess disaster readiness in North Carolina.”

The most common impact on North Carolinians was power loss, with the survey finding that 42 percent statewide lost power for some period of time during the storm. One in three experienced wind or tree damage on their properties, and 17 percent experienced flooding at their home or workplace, while 14.5 percent were displaced from their homes during the storm for some length of time, the Elon Poll found. However, among those who experienced wind or water damage, about a quarter say they are not receiving the help they need to recover.

Bottled water was the most popular item North Carolinians stockpiled as they prepared for the hurricane, followed by flashlights, food, gasoline and cash, according to the survey results.

N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper and President Donald Trump earned favorable approval ratings for their response to the storm. Eighty-seven percent of voters said they approved of the response to the hurricane by Cooper and 58 percent said they approved of Trump’s response.

Local meteorologists and local news outlets were found to be the most trusted sources of information for making decisions related to natural disasters, earning higher marks than family members, national meteorologists, elected officials and friends.

For this survey, the Elon Poll used a blended sample that combined telephone voter list sample with an online opt-in sample. The survey was conducted from Oct. 1-4 and generated 848 responses — 500 online and 348 by telephone — with a credibility interval of +/- 3.6 percent.

Hurricanes and policy questions

The impact of Hurricane Florence on North Carolina renewed discussion around a number of policy questions including development along the coast and in flood-prone areas, the steps that are taken to prevent environmental disasters from flooding and how to assist evacuees during disasters.

The Elon Poll found support for a number of policy initiatives, such as restricting real estate development in flood-prone areas, incorporating climate change findings into local government planning and ordinances and increasing environmental regulations for coal ash ponds and at hog farms.

A closer look at the responses found major divisions along party lines, particularly when it comes to climate change and environmental regulation. Overall, 62 percent felt that findings from climate change scientists should be incorporated into local government planning and ordinances, but support stood at 76 percent among Democrats and only 47 percent among Republicans.

Similarly, when asked about increased environmental regulations for hog farms, 68 percent of Democrats supported that idea compared to just 45 of Republicans while overall 59 percent supported such regulations. Similarly, increased regulation of coal ash ponds was supported by 79 percent of Democrats compared to 64 percent of Republicans, while the overall support was at 73 percent.

​Democrats were much more likely to say that hurricanes are becoming more severe, with 66 percent holding that view compared to 43 percent of Republicans. Members of the GOP were most likely to say that hurricanes were staying about the same (53 percent), a view held by 30 percent of Democrats.

Additionally, women were much more likely to say the severity of hurricanes are increasing. Fifty-nine percent held that view compared to 47 percent of men.

Climate change and coastal communities

Respondents were also asked how likely they think it is that climate change will have a negative impact on N.C. coastal communities, a question asked by the Elon Poll conducted in April 2017.

At that time, 45 percent of all respondents said a negative impact from climate change was “very likely,” 28 percent said it was “somewhat likely” and 23 percent said it was “not at all likely.”

Since then, opinions have shifted toward North Carolinians believing that such a negative impact on coastal communities from climate change is more likely. Overall, 52 percent believe it is “very likely” and 31 percent believe it is somewhat likely while 17 percent say that it is “not at all likely.”

That shift appears to be driven by changes in responses from Republicans. While in April 2017, 45 percent of Republicans said “not at all likely,” this survey found that view held by 31 percent of Republicans now. Now, 37 percent of Republicans say that negative impacts from climate change are “very likely” compared to just 13 percent who held that view in April 2017.

“Measuring the extent and isolating the causes of changes in voter attitudes on issues like climate change is difficult for pollsters from a methodological perspective,” Husser said. “However, our results suggest that Hurricane Florence has led to a shift in some voters’ attitudes on climate change. This is in line with a number of academic studies finding that personal, local weather experiences are important in how people respond to what climate scientists describe as a global pattern.”

This question also showed splits along educational and gender lines, with those respondents with at least a bachelor’s degree and female respondents both more inclined to believe negative impacts from climate change were “very likely.”

Preparing for the next storm

Given North Carolina’s position along the East Coast and the frequency with which it is impacted by hurricanes, the Elon Poll sought to determine how experiences during Hurricane Florence might be impacting how North Carolinians might view the next storm to come their way.

The survey found that about a quarter of the state — 26 percent — said they would prepare more next time while only 2 percent said they would make fewer preparations next time. Seventy-one percent said that they would make the same preparations when confronted with the forecast of a hurricane heading toward the state.

With Hurricane Florence and its slow pace through the Atlantic Ocean, many were keeping a close eye on changes in the forecast, with the storm eventually taking a much more westerly route once making landfall. About one in four — 28 percent — said they would be more likely to believe weather reports when the next storm approaches while 7.5 percent said they would be less likely to believe those reports. About two in three —64 percent — said their experience during Hurricane Florence would have not impact on how much they believe weather reports.

Federal, state and local officials offered multiple warnings about how Hurricane Florence would impact the state, and 77 percent of respondents said those warnings were on target with the actual threat that the state faced and the impact that the hurricane had. Seventeen percent of respondents said those warnings were overstated while 6 percent said they didn’t go far enough, the poll found.

“If North Carolinians prepare similarly before a future storm, most are likely to have water, food and flashlights,” Husser said. “However, emergency officials should note our results that many did not acquire extra gasoline and cash. I hope those officials will also consider that a small, yet substantively important, percentage of voters say their experiences with Florence made them less likely to believe weather reports the next time a storm is forecasted to hit their area. This creates a danger of ignored warnings next time.”

North Carolinians processed information about the hurricane and its potential impact from a variety of sources. Local meteorologists and local news ranked as the most trustworthy, with 31 percent of respondents saying that they are the most likely to trust those sources when making disaster decisions. Eighteen percent said they trusted no one but themselves while 17 percent said they trusted national meteorologists and national news. Family members came next, with 14 percent saying they were to be trusted most for advice when confronted with a disaster.

Owen Covington,
Staff
10/11/2018 9:50 AM