Sink or Swim: Preparing for Climate Change

October 15, 2018

 

It was April 1, 1981 and I was a reporter for The Columbus Enquirer, in Columbus, Ga. I was told to go to Hurtsboro, Ala., about 30 miles away, where a major tornado had touched down.

 

When I got there, I was awestruck by the devastation. Walking around destroyed homes and businesses in the center part of the small town, I remember thinking “this looks like a war zone.”

 

Two people died that day and 23 were injured. About 300 of the town’s 800 people were left homeless. But it was not my first brush with the destructive power of nature. That happened when I was in high school in Lebanon, Pa. with Hurricane Agnes, which made landfall in Florida on June 19, 1972.

 

The storm caused some of the worst flooding ever in the mid-Atlantic and is responsible for 122 deaths, of which 48 occurred in Pennsylvania. Agnes was called “the “worst natural disaster in the history of the state,” with 68,000 homes and 3,000 businesses destroyed. South Lebanon Township, where I lived, was particularly hard hit, although my home was spared.

 

Fast forward to this past week, Hurricane Michael strengthened unexpectedly overnight before hitting Northwest Florida on Wednesday. It was strongest hurricane to strike the United States since Andrew in 1992 and the strongest on record in the Florida Panhandle, a region that I know and where I have friends.

 

One of them, an economic developer, sent me an email Friday.  "This is when people pull together and show what they are truly made of. Northwest Floridians take care of one another, and this time will be no different!"

 

Live, Learn and Plan

 

I absolutely believe in the resiliency of people, especially during and after natural disasters. People come together and pull together. We’ve seen that virtually everywhere in this country.

 

And as people put their lives back together, they also put their homes and businesses back together with a vow to rebuild. Many economic developers have come to realize, that in the wake of tragedy, economic activity results. (As a result of Hurricane Agnes, I had a summer job rebuilding concrete sidewalks and curbs that had been washed away.)

 

Not only is there a resulting new construction, replacing what was lost with newer, often improved structures, but sometimes there is also a community reset. Let’s do it right this time. Let’s plan for a better future.

 

So we live, learn and plan. Building codes are improved, green spaces are expanded. It’s as if the slate has been wiped clean, allowing for new possibilities, a new face for the community to emerge.

 

In the wake of natural disasters, Americans have a long history of coming together to rebuild and rebuild better, to which local, state and federal government can and have taken a prominent role to ensure.

 

But I wonder if that is enough. It seems there are bigger forces at work here.

 

The UN Sounds the Alarm

 

Two days before Hurricane Michael made landfall at Mexico Beach, Fla., with 155 mph winds, the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published a report that the world's temperatures could escalate to catastrophic levels by 2040 and trigger a $54 trillion global economic loss.

 

These effects include extreme heatwaves, severe droughts, and sea-level rise, which is my primary focus here. Estimates of global average sea level rise vary, but it is becoming increasingly clear that it poses a major risk to coastal populations, economies, infrastructure and ecosystems around the world.

 

Since the dawn of civilization, people have lived in near coasts for reasons of subsistence (fishing) and logistics (trade and transport). Add to that recreation and cultural activities. Indeed, most of the world’s megacities are in coastal areas.

 

In the lower 48 states, counties directly on the shoreline constitute less than 10 percent of the total land mass, but 39 percent of the total population. From 1970 to 2010, the population of these counties increased by almost 40 percent and are projected to increase by an additional 10 million people or 8 percent by 2020.

In a nutshell, it means more people are at risk.

 

An Ominous Uptick

 

There is mounting evidence that climate changes influences major weather events which have become frequent and severe. Last year, damages from extreme weather hit $306 billion in the U.S. alone.

 

Climate change unfolds over decades and over very large regions. While it may not have “caused” a huge storm in the strictest sense, it has created a more favorable environment for these storms to take place. It has set the table.

 

In 2017, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) found that more than a quarter of coastal locations tied or set new records and that coastal flooding is expected to be 60 percent higher in 2018 than it was just over 20 years ago.

 

In its National Climate report published in May, NOAA said, “As relative sea level increases, it no longer takes a strong storm or a hurricane to cause coastal high tide flooding. High tide flooding causes frequent road closures, overwhelmed storm drains, and compromised infrastructure.”

 

In short, the worst is yet to come, and not just for people living in coastal areas but inland as well.

 

Rethinking Where and How to Build

 

All this should put the onus on government and businesses to be prepared for similar events in the future.

 

“Human settlements have been designed in a way that reflects a climate of the past, and this increases the likelihood that disaster-related losses will continue to rise,” said Gavin Smith, director of the Department of Homeland Security’s Coastal Resilience Center of Excellence in an interview with The New York Times.

 

“This also means we need to rethink how and where we build before the storm, as well as how and where we reconstruct public buildings and infrastructure in the aftermath of extreme events.”

 

But are we? Are we irresponsibly allowing development to take place in places where it should not be allowed now that we are better armed with the facts?

 

Last year, President Trump rescinded an executive order that required consideration of climate science in the design of federally funded projects. In some cases, it meant mandatory elevation of buildings in flood-prone areas. Earlier this year, FEMA released a strategic plan that stripped away previous mentions of climate change and sea-level rise.

 

When the North Carolina Resources Commission predicted a 39-inch sea level rise by the year 2100, the Legislature in 2012 summarily rejected the finding.

“The new Legislature … thought this report would kill off tourists and kill our coastal economies and convinced them to throw it in the trash, which they did,” said Stanley Riggs, a former professor of marine and coastal geography, in an interview with The Christian Science Monitor.

 

Stephen Colbert, in a segment on “The Colbert Report,” rightly made fun of the state lawmakers, saying they had two options, “sink or swim.”

 

“If your science gives you a result you don’t like, pass a law saying the result is illegal. Problem solved,” Colbert said.

 

Riggs worked on the original Commission Report in 2010 and on a later version requested by the Legislature. The later report looked 30 years ahead instead of 90, warning legislators the state needed to prepare for up to a 6-inch sea level rise.

 

When the Facts Change

 

When we learn of communities that are experiencing 500 and 1,000-year “rain events” in back to back years, maybe that should tell us something. Maybe climate change is not a communist plot but something that we can do something about. At the very least, we can try to adapt in order to save lives and property.

 

Now I know the knee-jerk reaction that global warming creates among some people. I was once in that camp. While I conceded that climate change might be happening, there was no way to determine its exact influence on weather events, and I refused to acknowledge that climate change might be partly human caused.

 

I no longer believe that. The preponderance of the evidence suggests otherwise. British economist John Kenneth Galbraith said, “Faced with the choice between changing one's mind and proving that there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof.”

 

That is probably human nature. But when the facts change, when new information comes to light, when science persuades me that I am wrong, well, I will change my mind. What do you do?

 

I’ll see you down the road.

 

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