Growing storms don’t have to be this catastrophic

A small tractor removes water from a business as floodwaters closed a street July 12 in Bree, following a storm that dumped nearly two months of rain in two days, Vermonter cleans up from floodwaters.

Imagine that you are trying to build a boat when it is already at sea and taking on water. You rush from emerging leak to popping leak, haunted by a vague sense that a storm is coming but with no idea how big it is or how long it will last.

This more or less describes how the United States is approaching the increased flood risk posed by a warmer atmosphere that contains more water, exposing the country to bouts of torrential and catastrophic rain. Lives are lost and property destroyed in part because we are moving too slowly to adopt proven solutions to bolster our infrastructure against increasingly routine disasters.

Last week in Vermont and New York’s Hudson Valley, months of rain fell in a matter of hours, inundating ancient water-management infrastructure, resulting in widespread flooding that claimed at least one life and destroyed roads, bridges, homes, and more. Both places have experienced severe flooding before and have taken modest steps to avoid it. These efforts have proved wholly insufficient.

Usually when most of us think of the flood risks posed by climate change, we imagine hurricanes and rising oceans. But a warmer planet also means more moisture in the air off the coasts.

This excess moisture is often swept out of the air in heavy rain. Climate change was directly responsible for $75 billion in flood damage in the United States between 1988 and 2017, according to a 2021 study. That number is certainly higher now and could rise significantly in the near future.

It is worth noting that Vermont was not lucky enough to bear the brunt of this impact last week. The state is often cited as a potential refuge from climate change, author Jonathan Mingle wrote in The New York Times. As I wrote, we keep learning the hard way that there are no climate shelters.

NOAA is trying to update its rain forecasts, but it doesn’t expect to finish that job until 2027. We don’t have that kind of time. Billions of dollars are already being spent on infrastructure projects across the country, thanks to last year’s Infrastructure and Jobs Act, and most planning is based on outdated NOAA projections. First Street estimates that nearly 13 million households now live in unrecognized flood zones that lack flood insurance.

Every part of the country at risk of riverine and local flooding needs urgent and significant upgrades to at least three major defences, according to Alison Branco, director of climate adaptation at the Nature Conservancy in New York: sewers, wetlands and floodplains, and stormwater management.

None of this will come cheap. New York Governor Kathy Hochul recently pledged $516 million to replace 140 bridges and dozens of sewers, but that would leave thousands more to be upgraded. A floodplain opening involves homeowners buying. With the help of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Vermont has purchased 154 homes since 2011. It may need to buy 10,000 more to be on the safe side, Bloomberg News suggests. Upgrading water management systems could be the most astronomically costly of all; New York City alone would need to spend $100 billion on such a project.

But we cannot allow the scale of the challenge to overwhelm our ability to solve it. Branko argues that policymakers at every level often think in the short term, driven by a narrow focus on cost-benefit analysis and hard-line policy logic. “Let me kick you off your waterfront property” makes the campaign’s dreadful slogan.

But the alternative is our current incremental approach, which continually cleans up the old mess and patches up on the fringes of a problem that worsens with every ton of carbon we pump into the atmosphere.

Mark Gongloff is an editor at Bloomberg Opinion and a columnist covering climate change. © Bloomberg 2023. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency.

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