Editorial: Resilience costs mount as climate crisis looms
A country that refuses to confront these changes, that shrugs off the planning and preparation needed, and certainly does not have the desire — or, at this moment, the capacity — to absorb those costs is making a choice to put millions of its residents in harm’s way.
A LINE OF slow-moving summer storms pushed through the Washington, D.C., area on Monday morning, dumping between 3 and 4 inches of rain — the average accumulated precipitation in a typical July — on the nation’s capital in an hour’s time.
With nowhere to go, the water quickly overwhelmed the District’s storm-drain capacity, filling streets and further snarling the always miserable morning commute. Photos poured onto social media of motorists standing on the roofs of submerged vehicles, of waterfalls in underground Metro stations, and of rivers and creeks over-spilling their banks.
In short, it was the very definition of a flash flood. Meteorologists calculated that a storm delivering that much rain to that location has a less than 1% chance of occurring in any given year, little comfort for those who saw their cars float away on Monday.
Now, weather is not climate. Temperatures plunging into the single digits for a few days is no more disproves global warming than an hour of intense rainfall serves as proof of climate change. Rather, it’s the frequency — the trends — that are the important component.
And as we see this happen time and time again — the two events in three years that destroyed the downtown of Ellicott City in central Maryland for instance, or the days of record rainfall that inundated Houston as part of Hurricane Harvey in 2017, or what New Orleans is absorbing this weekend from Hurricane Barry — it should serve as clear indication of the crisis we now face — and for which we are woefully unprepared.
Set aside for a moment the argument that we must curb greenhouse gas emissions at once in order to slow the planet’s continued warming and perhaps avoid the extinction of 1 million species of animal and plant life predicted in the Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services released earlier this year.
While that is critically important to stave off catastrophe, the lesson of Washington’s diluvial disaster is about the dangerously inadequate infrastructure in place to manage heavier and more frequent rains, powerful and more frequent tropical storms, and widespread, costly and, yes, more frequent flooding along the coasts and inland.
The New York Times, reporting about the District flooding, notes that “D.C. Water expected to spend $60 million over 10 years to improve storm-water pumping stations alone.” That figure does not include other climate-related projects or annual upkeep of existing lines.
And that’s just for stormwater management in one city (albeit one constructed primarily on wetland infill). Boosting stormwater capacity in other metropolitan areas will cost substantially more.
The Times points to a May report by the Water Environment Federation, a nonprofit group that represents waste-water professionals, that municipal storm-water agencies are facing a $7.5 billion annual shortfall to meet requirements of law.
When stormwater systems overflow, they can dump sewage into waterways, as happened in Balitmore on Monday, or fail to move water out fast enough to avoid destructive flooding, as Virginia Beach neighborhoods suffered from Hurricane Matthew in 2016. Both are dangerous and costly.
Protecting coastal communities from storm-surge flooding caused by tropical weather is another issue. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposed a comprehensive system to defend Houston and the Texas coast that could cost $30 billion. The Corps has proposed barriers in Norfolk that would cost $1.5 billion, and a study conducted by Virginia Beach puts that community’s price tag between $2 billion and $4 billion.
As for localities plagued by so-called “blue sky” or “nuisance” flooding driven by sea-level rise and tidal patterns — pay special attention here, ye who call Hampton Roads home — the estimated cost is greater still.
According to a recent reporting by the Center for Climate Integrity, an effort by the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development, the United States faces a staggering $400 billion in construction costs by 2040 to protect vulnerable communities from sea-level rise fueled by global warming.
In Virginia alone, that number is $31.2 billion — a figure that includes $1.7 billion for resilience improvements in Virginia Beach, $821 million for Poquoson, $675 million in Chesapeake, $643 million in Hampton and $575 million in Norfolk.
This is a commonwealth which, as the report helpfully points out, had an annual budget of $52.1 billion.
“We’re still approaching this 21st-century problem with 20th-century infrastructure, and it’s completely inadequate,” Constantine Samaras, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, told The New York Times in comments about the District flooding. “And it’s only going to get worse.”
Residents here hardly need the reminder. Nor do those in Miami, New Orleans, Houston, the North Carolina Outer Banks and all the communities along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. It’s the reality we see regularly when the moon is full, or there’s a particularly heavy deluge or, heaven forbid, a powerful hurricane is churning toward land.
And it’s probably too much to think that federal lawmakers or those who staff the pertinent agencies in Washington will be radically changed by the inconvenience they endured getting to work on Monday. (Although most flood victims will attest to the event being a permanent scar given the high cost and long time for, say, drying and repairing a basement that takes on even a few inches of water.)
However, this episode, much like so many others in recent years, demonstrates the unforgiving, unrelenting destruction facing the United States, a country that is desperately unprepared for it and in which a good number of people are still unwilling to accept this reality.
And a country that refuses to confront these changes, that shrugs off the planning and preparation needed, and certainly does not have the desire — or, at this moment, the capacity — to absorb those costs is making a choice to put millions of its residents in harm’s way.
In Hampton Roads, we know because thousands of people here will lose their property, their jobs and perhaps their lives without the urgent action a threat of this size and scope requires. We, as Americans, deserve better than that — and we must demand it.