Floods R’ Us

Climate Change Housing

Heerlen           In the trainings that ACORN did in six different cities in partnership with groups from the Anthropocene Alliance, one part of the session was a campaign planning exercise.  We would break participants into small groups and give them a topic.  In the beginning we started out with flooding, which yielded lots of discussion, but an unwieldy number of targets from local to federal that made in hard for the teams.  We switched to home and flood insurance, which everyone understood in a more universal and personal way because of the soaring and immediate economics involved.  In truth, the current climate uncertainty when it comes to “water, water everywhere” triggering flooding that is unexpected and unpredictable is hard for people, planners, and politicians to get their arms around to fix.  The crisis is one of those “messing with Mother Nature” problems that perplexes and seems almost God sent, leaving the responses more in the “gee-whiz” realm, than the “let’s get going” place.

People understand a bit about coastal subsidence increasingly.  Water is rising.  It’s not overnight.  Homeowners can grin and bear it, move up or move back, or leave the problem to their children or the next buyer and punt for a couple of decades.  The water this year seems higher more often in the bayous along the Pearl River basin.  Turbulence in the Gulf of Mexico is a factor.  Any storm warning brings the water higher.  We read that this could be a tough hurricane season as well.  Veterans along the coasts know how to prepare.  There will be some warning, so people can gauge whether to stand or run.  We know the odds, even if they aren’t great, and we hope we are ready.

What seems to be surprising many communities these days is that part of the dilemma is just plain rain.  The length and severity of some thunderstorms and the rain that comes with them is overwhelming many municipal systems and rural dam works.  Houston is a big city case in point.  Flooding seems almost annual.  We heard a lot recently about rains backing up dams and waterways in northeastern Oklahoma and regularly flooding homes in Miami and surrounding communities and carrying lead tailings everywhere, increasing the health hazard.

This isn’t an isolated problem.  Reports are shocked by the rains:

widespread floods across the Midwest and upper Plains, the product of storms that dumped rainfall exceeding 10 inches, up to as much as 18 inches, across swaths of the Missouri River basin in parts of Minnesota, South Dakota and Iowa.  For much of southern Minnesota, it was about two months’ worth of rain within nine days, said Pete Boulay, a climatologist in the state Department of Natural Resources. The number of extreme precipitation days — where totals are among the top 1 percent of all events — has grown by about 60 percent in the Northeast since the 1950s, and by 45 percent across the Midwest, according to the latest National Climate Assessment report.

Hydroelectric projects are overrun.  Dams are at risk from California to the eastern highlands.  The amount of rain falling in many areas is simply beyond the reach of existing plans and infrastructure, and few seem confident of the fix.  Dams in high risk areas are engineered for 25 inches of rain in a 48-hour period, but no one seems sure about the cumulative effects of persistent rain over a period of time coupling with extreme events.

Fixing dams or building new and better dams are both controversial for their overall environmental impacts and wildly expensive and time-consuming projects, so there’s no solution coming quickly.  The only thing certain is the uncertainty in too many communities, and that’s not going to make it easier for communities to sleep at night.