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National climate change affects local budgets

On Thursday, February 12, 2014 Elon University experienced its first school-wide snow day in as few as three years. Students were excited for a class-free day until many realized the snow, and bitter cold, was inhibiting them from leaving their apartments and dorms. This was only the beginning of a series of snowy days, ice storms and uncharacteristically severe winter weather for the area.

The impending issue of climate change is one that the typical American tends to shy away from, its scientific statistics and facts often too complex too decipher. Despite not confronting climate change, it is happening everywhere from the fields of Pennsylvania to the coastal regions of California to Elon’s campus. The weather has been unpredictable this year, leaving workers and residents stung with confusion.

Of course, there’s a major factor at play here—weather. There’s also a major player at work that often gets overlooked. Cleanup crews and maintenance workers are left performing damage control after storms, often for weeks or months. In addition, city and college campus boards are responsible for creating an annual budget that must allot a specific amount of money for weather-related damages, cleanup and reconstruction. With changing weather, these budgets are proving to be harder to predict and assemble.

At Elon, this past winter was a disheveling one for Physical Plant workers, lead by Director of Landscaping and Grounds, Tom Flood.

“This year we got nailed. But we all deal with it,” Flood said. Compared to the last few years, this winter offered some struggles that had to be faced on a day-to-day basis. For example, after the unforgettable ice storm that froze Elon on March 7, Flood had to call in back up. Landscaping companies, as well as Elon Physical Plant workers, who are considered emergency staff, reported to campus immediately to restore campus safety for students and faculty. That same day, a massive oak tree coated in ice in Belk Pavilion split in half and crashed into a building. Instances like these represent the unpredictable costs for damage repair due to recent weather extremities.

North Carolina governor Pat McCrory called a “state of emergency” during the ice storm, Flood said, so Elon is now eligible under those circumstances for Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funds. The FEMA grant is given to property owners who have experienced damage to homes or buildings on their property during a federally declared disaster. Although, the FEMA grant has stipulations that may hinder private institutions, like Elon’s, chances of receiving the money.

All numbers considered, Flood reported a total of nearly $60,000 in spending after the winter storms this year in maintenance, rebuilding, service equipment rentals, replacement trees and contract labor and storm mitigation. Specifically, Elon Physical Plant has spent approximately, and still rising, $25,000 on tree replacement since the storms.

Since this year has been such an anomaly for North Carolina’s typical weather patterns, and United States weather patterns at large, budgeting has to be a concern. Flood said that an Elon board determines the budget annually and that due to geographical location less than 1 percent of the budget is reserved for storm-related matters.

“The worst thing we deal with in this part of North Carolina is ice storms, tornados, strong lines of wind,” Flood said. About 10 percent of Elon’s operating budget, he said, is held in reserves annually and was available for Elon Physical Plant to dip into for storm-related costs when they had emptied their allotted budget.

An insufficient winter weather budget was also a problem for the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) this year. NCDOT had surpassed their $30 million budget for winter weather by mid-February. Typically only about half of this budget is spent during a mild winter. Jennifer Brandenburg, the state asset management engineer at the NCDOT, said in February that it’s not unusual for this budget to be expanded during severe winters like this year’s. Insufficient allotment of funds hasn’t posed a major problem yet, though. The extra money comes from cutbacks in other budget areas like grass maintenance in the spring, for example, something that many residents wouldn’t particularly notice. Safety of transportation, said Brandenburg, is the number one concern of the NCDOT and the state in instances of severe weather.

While Elon Physical Plant and the NCDOT didn’t experience major issues borrowing funds from other portions of the budget this year, rapid climate change may hinder this happening in the future. According to a recent report published by the U.S. Global Change Research Program, scientists confirmed significant changes in the Earth’s climactic trends that will surely affect the population and its environment in the future.

In summary, the five-year study outlines the impacts of climate change now and in the future. The study’s principle mission is to inform the general public of the human-induced climate change occurring and to encourage the nation to understand and prepare for its implications. Most significantly, it addresses population adaption plans that have been or will be implemented in regions across the country. The study cites the need for population adaption as one of the necessary next steps. However, these plans are facing challenges due to setbacks and resistance at local levels.

“Barriers include limited funding, policy and legal impediments and difficulty in anticipating climate-related changes at local scales,” says the National Climate Assessment website.

This climate change report also includes analyses on seven sectors at the national level and interactions between them: human health, water, energy, transportation, agriculture, forests and ecosystems. The Southeast region, which includes North Carolina, faces its own specific climate change problems. The climate report predicts a rise in sea level, decreased water availability and an increase in temperatures. Even while this winter had record low temperatures, the Southeast seems to be looking at a future of increased hot days and decreased cold days while experiencing an increase in evaporative losses, which leads to a decline in water availability. Evidently, extreme heat poses its own problems concerning health and the environment, something that will potentially affect budgeting as well.

Whichever type of extreme weather, hot or cold, is going to define each region in the U.S. it will come with its own physical and societal implications. The climate change report begs to be studied in each region in concurrence with creating proper budgets for weather-related destruction and activity in the future.

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