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In the process of buying our house in 2006, we learned that it had been built on a FEMA-designated 100-year floodplain; the bank refused to give us a loan unless we purchased flood insurance. Grumble, grumble: another expensive mortgage hoop to jump through. We of course signed up for the insurance but talked about asking FEMA to reconsider our designation.
We never did that, and now we never will.
Like much of Southern Vermont, our property is an odd mix of wilderness and traffic: on a major highway in the village of West Brattleboro, it also fronts the Ames Hill Brook, one tiny part of a vast network of relatively untouched waterways that make Vermont the lush state so many people love to visit for hiking, boating, and "leaf-peeping." The water is very cold, and we call it our air conditioner; if you're hot, you walk down to the brook and sit right down in the water. Aaaaah. The black locusts and sugar maples on the banks keep the south side of the house cool in summer too, and help prevent erosion.
While we have always enjoyed watching the water rise and fall with the weather--it gets pretty crazy after thunderstorms and resembles what my daughter once shriekingly dubbed "raging coffee!"--it never occurred to us that it could get anywhere near our house, which is about 25 feet from the bank at the nearest point.
How wrong we were. During Hurricane Irene, the water was within a foot of our basement door, and I was packing the toothbrushes in anticipation of being evacuated. "Did you think it would be this high?" I shakily asked my husband. "Yes, but I didn't think it would be this scary," he replied.
That's when the rain slowed and the water level started to go down, but the adrenaline is taking a lot longer to recede. We've had lots of sunny days since the storm, and I feel better. But rain, which I have always found soothing, now makes me anxious.
I'm not the only one who's been watching the weather with slowly creeping panic. From blizzards to tropical storms to the wildfires in Texas, this has been one of the craziest and most expensive years our country has ever seen, weather-wise. This is exactly the kind of extreme weather climate scientists have been warning us about for twenty years or more. Maybe we knew it would be this bad, but we probably didn't expect it to be this scary. Not in our own back yards, anyway.
A report from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) attempts to show people just how close to their homes catastrophic climate change is likely to get. "What we found was that there was really no area or region that was immune to effects from climate change," said Michelle Mehta, a lead author of the report, which is called "Thirsty for Answers: Preparing for the Water-Related Impacts of Climate Change in American Cities." Her hope is that the study, which includes maps showing huge new swaths of flood-prone areas in city streets and other compelling imagery, will "crystallize" the information for the general public. If people look and say, "I know these streets, I know that beach," she said, "it makes the issue real."
I wrote about the report well before Hurricane Irene started creeping up the East Coast, and it was already giving me nightmares. Then the nightmares started coming true.
On the brighter side, though, places like New York City are already on the job. Although Irene missed them this time, the next hurricane could easily make landfall there. The dense, aging infrastructure of everything from roads and subways to sewer and water treatment systems--much of it far below sea level--makes the city incredibly prone to water-related disasters. And the densely packed population there would be like the proverbial fish in a barrel.
Anyone who felt like criticizing Mayor Bloomberg for (unnecessarily, as it turned out) evacuating the most vulnerable people before Irene arrived would likely have felt differently if they'd read this NRDC report. I don't know for sure, but I suspect these evacuations must have stemmed at least in part from the city's relatively higher awareness of its increasing vulnerability to floods and rising sea levels.
Other cities are not so aware, and that's one of the things NRDC wanted to highlight too. Many, like St. Louis, haven't even started looking into the problem--let alone changed development plans or made infrastructure changes. Yet that city, like many others, will likely face increased precipitation, worse storms, and increased flooding.
Others, including Miami and Los Angeles, will likely have less precipitation but will need to simultaneously address rising sea levels--a combination that could severely compromise their drinking water supplies, as less rain falls and more salt water creeps into water treatment infrastructure. "Local planning is key," says the report.
How can cities afford to put resources into studies, planning, and infrastructure upgrades when they're already having trouble paying for basic services? On the other hand, how can they afford not to?
One of my favorite songs is an old Appalachian folk ditty called "Arkansas Traveler." It encapsulates some of the deepest wisdom about human nature I've heard. My favorite incarnation of the song is a straight man/funny man routine performed by Michelle Shocked. After some banter about whether the supposedly ignorant old farmer has lived there all his life ("Not yet!") and how deep the mud hole is ("Only comes up to here on my ducks..."), the traveler asks, "Hey, farmer. When you gonna fix that leakin' roof?" The farmer answers, "When it's rainin' it's too wet to fix it, and when it's dry it's just as good as any man's house."
We all fall into this trap. While a crisis is happening, all our energy and money go into just getting by: bailing the basement, fighting the next fire, rebuilding bridges and roads. After we're done with that, well, it's as good as any man's house again!
But this planet is our only house. NRDC's report has a very clear message: it's time all of us, in every city of the U.S., got around to fixing our roofs.
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