Rare Floods No Longer Rare

By William S. Becker

It happened in July 2016. A flash flood roared through Ellicott City, Maryland, killed two people and caused tens of millions of dollars in damages to the historic buildings along Main Street. The experts said it was one of those rare 1,000-year flood events. The city set about the job of rebuilding. It takes a long time – often years – for a community to recover from a devastating flood.

Then last May, while Ellicott City was still getting over the 2016 disaster, it happened again, another one of those “extremely rare” 1,000-year floods.

For something that has only a 0.1% chance of happening in any given year, there are a lot of those floods going around lately. There have been nine 1,000-year events since 2010 in the United States. Three of them took place in the first seven months of 2016. In the likely event we’ll have more of them, it will be important to make a distinction between 1,000-year floods and 1,000-year rains. A record rain does not necessarily result in a record flood. For example, it depends on things like how fast and relentlessly the rain falls, how much moisture plants and soils can absorb, and how much impermeable surfaces a city has. Its was concrete, asphalt and rooftops that helped make the damage was severe during the 1,000-year rains that Hurricane Harvey last fall.

Whether it’s record floods or record rains, however, there is no doubt that climate change is a significant factor. We know that warmer oceans feed energy to hurricanes. We know that warmer oceans evaporate more water, leading to more rain. Hurricanes seem to be slowing down, too, dispensing more rain before they leave a region.

Scientists have concluded that global warming increased the rainfall from Hurricane Harvey by as much as 38%. Harvey produced more rain than any other single storm on record in the United States. Next came Hurricane Lane, which dumped more than 50 inches of rain on the Big Island of Hawaii, setting a record for that state’s tropical storms. Then came Florence. At last word, it had dumped 55 inches on the Carolinas and was still causing rivers to rise well above flood stage.

Record-shattering rains are becoming more common inland, too. Tens of millions of Midwesterners have been threatened with flooding this summer, including residents of Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Nebraska, Kansas and Iowa. They, too, are demonstrating what climate scientists have long predicted: Rains will tend to occur in large events rather than many smaller storms. In 2014, the National Climate Assessment reported that annual precipitation has increased over the past century, by up to 20% in some parts of the Midwest, in part “driven by intensification of the heaviest rainfalls.” That trend is likely to worsen.

For government officials, climate change means that the old reliable floodplain maps must be thrown out. The Federal Emergency Management Administration, better known as FEMA, used to rely on historical records to identify where floods were likely to occur and how much land and property they would affect. Insurance companies did the same. Now, no one can tell where the boundaries are. The past is no longer prologue to future floods. Disaster officials have to consult climate science rather than history to anticipate the size of floods.

A few things have not changed, however. One is the pressure from real estate developers to keep building homes and businesses in harm’s way. Another is the tendency for people who have always lived on the coasts or alongside rivers to keep living there. A third is no matter how well federal disaster recovery programs work, they will never be good enough or fast enough to satisfy the victims of weather disasters. They just want to get out of their FEMA trailers, motel rooms and friends’ couches, and get their lives back on track. It is not long before their patience runs out.

So, there are lots of big rain and flood events. What do they look like on the ground?

In southwest Wisconsin last month, 20 inches of rain fell on the village of Gays Mills, producing the third catastrophic flood the community has experienced in 10 years. The other communities along the 126-mile-long Kickapoo River suffered historic floods, too. They all have experienced occasional floods throughout the last century, ranging from “ankle ticklers” to pretty big events. Photographs are still available showing the Kickapoo River rolling cars side over side down Main Street and pushing big Victorian homes off their foundations back in 1951.

After record floods on the Kickapoo River in 1907, 1912, 1917, 1935 and 1951, most people were willing to accept them as the price they had to pay for living on the banks of a river. In fact, they felt some pride in not letting the river chase them away. Today’s floods are different. Two of the Kickapoo River’s villages, Gays Mills and Soldiers Grove, have relocated significant numbers of their buildings to higher ground – high enough, hopefully, to keep them out of reach of any future flood.

As I write this on Sept. 19, 2018, the floods in the Carolinas have breached sewage treatment plants and hog manure lagoons, churning it into a “toxic stew” suspected of containing salmonella, giardia and E-coli.

When the waters finally recede there is mold and soggy drywall. People have experienced the flood’s cruel downsizing of lifelong possessions. Piles of waterlogged belongings wait on curbs for trucks to pick them up and take them to the dump. FEMA installs temporary trailer parks that victims call “Fema-villes”. There is the loss of neighborhoods and friendships. When church services resume, they are jammed into any place that’s large and dry enough. The kids have been yanked away from their schools, routines and friends.

Everyone hopes they can get their lives back to normal by Thanksgiving or Christmas. Forty percent of small businesses never reopen after a disaster, leaving some people without jobs and everyone without easy access to goods and services. And there’s that toxic stew. It has invades places critical to both body and spirit: not only homes and businesses and restaurants, but also churches, child-care centers, and libraries. It’s not just the sewage. The water has brought nasty things into close contact: rodents, snakes and even corpses the floods exhumed from cemeteries.

This is what climate change looks, feels and smells like. Scientists and “alarmists” have warned us about this for decades, but most of us were deniers to some degree, dismissing climate change as something far away, like dark clouds on the horizon. Now people are calling this the “new normal”, which proves they still don’t get it. There is no more “normal”. The climate will continue to change, often in unexpected ways, because of carbon pollution from decades ago. It will continue getting more violent because we are still putting that pollution in the atmosphere. We don’t know exactly how bad it will be. We are not experiencing a new normal; we are experiencing the end of normalcy.

If I had one wish, I would put the 535 members of Congress and the President of the United States on buses after each major disaster, take them to heart of big floods and hand them shovels to scoop the disgusting muck from people’s homes. After two or three field trips like that, they might finally agree that it’s time for America to decarbonize.

September 20th, 2018|Commentary|