A Flood of Coverage of Flooding in the U.S.

Houston Flooding after Tropical Storm Harvey        Photo: Brett Coomer, Houston Chronicle

In the past week, there has been a deluge of stories in various newspapers about how cities and rural areas are dealing with flooding related to climate change-linked sea-level rise or extreme rain events or both.  Two clear storylines emerge:  some places such as areas in the Florida Keys or even the precious relics of Venice may not able to be saved and we need to face up to it, and there cities like Houston and Charlotte that are beginning to deal with habitual flooding by preparing for it or even moving people out of its path.

Why This Matters:  Climate change-related flooding needs to be near the top of the list of things we MUST do to deal with the climate crisis.  This is a problem not just for tomorrow, but indeed right now.  These issues may, in fact, be related to the public’s growing awareness of the reality of climate change and its desire to have the government do more to address it.  Some cities are more aggressively working on adaptation than others — like Houston — whose local news is often about various efforts across the city to deal with their habitual flooding.  But if their efforts are focused on building expensive sea walls, are they doing the right thing?  Venice has spent almost two decades on a massive sea walls project that still is not completed and which many believe will destroy the surrounding natural environment without providing meaningful protection to the city from sea-level rise. And how long will these expensive “band-aids” or even “tourniquets” work?

Houston Knows It Has A Flooding Problem

Houston is awash with flooding projects, but few buyouts.  For example, its new Spaceport, which will be a hub for aerospace companies that service the space industry through new developments and technologies, has a huge “detention basin” build around it to capture rainwater running off the mostly hardscaped site, and keeping it from inundating surrounding neighborhoods when storms like Imelda come through.  The basin is built to be able to hold twice as much water as is required. And a local high school that has flooded repeatedly is getting $25M from FEMA to construct flood gates and waterproof the building’s brick exterior to fend off future storms, giving peace of mind to students who were displaced from the campus for months after Harvey.  That seems like a big number for just one high school’s flood mitigation, but to rebuild the school on higher ground would have cost $260M. Therein lies the problem.

Charlotte Is Ahead of the Curve

Charlotte began moving to higher ground in the 1990s.    The Washington Post explains that “the Queen City has also been steadily unbuilding itself, bulldozing houses and razing apartment complexes along its creeks, ripping up a mall parking lot to reveal a hidden waterway and then stripping away its concrete banks, all in a bid to prevent the flash flooding that turns communities into deathtraps.”  So far, they have torn down more than 450 structures and replaced them with “absorbent grasslands” — a flood mitigation strategy that is seen as a prototype for other cities.  It was seen as “ahead of the curve” when twenty years ago they realized their future flood risk and began to take action purchasing and removing vulnerable homes and businesses.



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