Knee-Deep in Water: Learning from New Orleans
Dan Martin reflects on the new frequency of urban flooding along the American shoreline and elsewhere and the challenges of adapting to these "extreme weather" events. Dan is the Managing Principal at Market Feasibility Advisors & Host of the Next Gen Waterfronts podcast on ASPN, covering coastal economics and development.
Ten days ago, my family and I had a fabulous time at my nephew and his wife’s wedding in New Orleans. There really is nothing like the music and food at a New Orleans wedding, and they did it all perfectly.
Unfortunately, the next morning, after torrential rains, the happy couple woke up to two feet of water in their house, and they weren’t alone. Storm sewers were backed up across whole neighborhoods. There just wasn’t enough storm sewer capacity to pump it all out of the city. About the same time, and a mile away, a friend’s son, new to town, called the friend to ask whether he should start his car with the exhaust under water. Flooding brings many unexpected questions and problems to the lives of those affected. Eventually, he took a ride-share to work.
While flooding is unsurprising in New Orleans, it is becoming the new normal for communities across the US. Some 150 east and Gulf Coast communities will experience regular flooding annually within a couple of decades as a result of extreme weather.
Here in the Midwest, in just the last couple of months, unseasonal torrential rainstorms have flooded parts of Nebraska, Iowa, and other Plains states, as well as suburbs in Chicago and Detroit and other parts of Michigan. The storms seemed random, like tornados, but they covered vast areas. In Nebraska, a critical Air Force base was flooded because the ground was still frozen. When that stormwater reached rivers, the flooding moved downstream.
As I write this, a weather system equipped with torrential rains and producing dozens of tornados was parked over Missouri. The storm track that soaked New Orleans had passed through and flooded parts of Houston just hours before - were thousands of structures not appearing on flood zone maps were flooded by Harvey a couple of years back.
So, with this extreme weather, we’re all New Orleans – now – or in the near future.
No doubt you’ve heard some versions of the line “The future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.” The phrase is often used to convey optimism – that big diamonds lie about awaiting discovery. But for many of America’s communities, the future is also flooded, like New Orleans that day. Not a positive, at least not until the end of the article.
To clear out flood waters, communities need pumps, storm sewers (to move it away), a place to move the water to, and the power (electricity) to make that all happen. Local water retention facilities, at all scales, from rain gardens to Louisiana’s Morganza spillway (areas to flood). The Morganza has been used only rarely – but all in recent years and maybe this week. Communities across the country might need their own Morganza.
During the New Orleans flood of ten days ago, the storm sewer flow capacity could not keep up, resulting in a systemic failure. The rain fell at a faster rate than it could be pumped out. It may not be enough to rely on the capacity of your community’s existing system if it doesn’t have adequate flow capacity.
Power may be a concern too. A recent report by the research arm of BlackRock notes that well over half of the United States’ electrical supply is at risk from the impacts of climate change. Back in New Orleans, one of the many pumps lost power. The water in that area got deeper which did more damage.
If New Orleans was so ill prepared, what about places that haven’t dealt with a lifetime of flooding? Recall last year’s news footage of the Carolinas after being hit by hurricane -- the 22 billion-dollar Florence. The water wouldn’t leave. Without preparation large and small, US communities will face similar and worse situations in the years ahead.
States and communities will have to devise new ways to identify what to do and how to pay for it. In years ahead, what was once a local infrastructure cost will need to be shared by better funded governments. It’s better to plan for excess capacity; Chicago was ahead of its time with its Deep Tunnel project.
Begun some fifty years ago, the 109 miles of subway sized tunnels and three yet to be built reservoirs would operate like the New Orleans Morganza spillway - but fed by underground tunnels, not the Mississippi. The Deep Tunnel project protects Chicago from flooding and eliminates the need to dump stormwater into Lake Michigan – the city’s source of drinking water. With extreme weather, it may need to go deeper.
As more serious, more destructive, more frequent flooding, in places that have not flooded or done so rarely hits cities along the Eastern Seaboard, the south and Midwest may hit all states. It seems likely that more of them will be politically red ones. In many red states, people shut down when they hear the term “climate change”. A new neutral term is needed; one that conveys the imminent threats but doesn’t carry with it a political challenge. There is one already out there that can be used and is accurate. For years, the Weather Channel has run countless shows about “extreme weather”. Planning and preparing for floods can be done under the imperative to address “extreme weather”. A loop of video coverage from the Carolinas to Nebraska will help sell the need.
We fuss with our WiFi sometimes and expect it to be free wherever we go. Here in the US we’re used to things that work - power when we plug in, hot water from the left faucet, a way to regulate temperature indoors and ice-cubes on demand.
What will life be, what will we be like if that changes? It’ll be different depending on your personality. It’ll be tough on the OCD and easier for the flexible and resourceful. The MacGyvers will rule.
In recent times, control of everything has swung back and forth from centralized to distributed. Mainframes gave way to PCs, now we’re up in the cloud. Food, once acceptably processed, is better local.
If random floods, outages and many other resources, currently reliable, become less so or simply unreliable, the future is likely to be a lot more distributed and local. If you're flexible and resourceful, you'll be fine.
A week and a half ago, New Orleans took the flooding in stride. The crayfish boil that day simply took place at a friend’s house. While individual households took a hit, the place keeps moving forward thanks to real community. The fabulous wedding I described could only have happened there. The 300 years (really, this year) of a dozen cultures blending together created the grand gumbo of food, music, and attitude that is only New Orleans. We can learn from this place.