Year by year, hurricanes are growing stronger and more frequent. We are witness to these changes as we watch two catastrophic storms devastate the southeastern United States in as many weeks.
This month, Hurricane Michael slammed the Florida Panhandle, southern Virginia, and the Carolinas. The massive storm killed at least 16 people, flooded cities, highways, and rivers, and reduced much of the region to rubble.
Barely two weeks ago, Hurricane Florence killed at least 36 people in three states, forced thousands to evacuate their homes, dumped record floodwaters on North Carolina, created power outages for hundreds of thousands, and killed millions of farm animals. The most recent damage estimates put the economic toll at a staggering $100 billion, once accounting for property damage, medical costs, and lost wages.
Natural forces emboldened by climate change continue to overwhelm our outdated stormwater management practices and inadequate urban planning, putting us in a precarious position. Short-term economics have often driven development where considering long-term environmental impact was needed instead. When it comes to handling the effects of more storms, we’re not as prepared as we think.
As we assess the damage done by Michael, Florence, and other storms, the shrewdest move is to prepare for the next big storm — and the one after that. Municipalities, businesses, and individuals can brace for the next storms by focusing on the following areas:
Additional Pollution Prevention
Florence and Michael disrupted two of North Carolina’s biggest industries: coal power and hog farming. This created environmental trouble and the potential for health problems. Duke Energy officials in North Carolina said slope and landfill erosion caused stormwater with coal ash — containing heavy metals such as arsenic, lead, and mercury — to spill into Sutton Lake. Watchdog groups have expressed concern about the effect on water quality.
Floodwaters also breached multiple hog lagoons, designed to keep solid waste from polluting sources of drinking water, in at least two North Carolina counties, causing varying degrees of damage. The North Carolina Pork Council says the state’s other 3,000 hog lagoons are holding up, but the state’s Department of Environmental Quality will have to perform inspections.
The landfills, dams, and lagoons containing pollutants need to be stabilized and reinforced. Cities can reduce landfill washout by using gravel stabilizers, terracing, drainage diversions, and other measures to safeguard their slopes against erosion. To avert overflow of detention ponds like hog lagoons, companies can add pond depth, secure the perimeters, and place impervious barriers around the site.
Adjusted Damage Estimates
Because of climate change, we can count on heavier rain and shorter intervals between storms increasing flooding risk. Data is still being gathered for Michael, but we know that for Florence, greenhouse gas emissions and warmer weather made for more intense rainfall. When Hurricane Harvey hit Houston last year, the city matched its annual rainfall (typically 50 inches) in a matter of days.
Cities, businesses, and infrastructure planners need to set new damage expectations, as “500-year storms” arise with increasing regularity. Adequate planning and preparation may seem expensive overall, but it’s more expensive to deal with damage in the aftermath of flooding. It’s important to remember there’s no immediate fix or silver bullet. Instead, we need long-term solutions first acknowledging the problem and then planning for it.
Broader Public Education
Weathering the next storm requires a public education process that touches all sectors on the solutions available to help protect communities against floodwater. In my hometown of Houston, the community has come together with a discussion on the web, in public forums, and in community meetings.
The Houston Green Building Resource Center provides a public resource at the permitting building, providing engineers, architects, contractors, and homeowners with techniques on how to reduce flooding on the macro and micro levels, including information on building codes, permeable and sustainable materials, and engineering technologies to incorporate. Examples include elevated construction, or raising buildings above the rising floodplain, and permeable paving techniques that can reduce the extreme weather’s impact on the earth’s surface. Both are cost-effective improvements worthy of broader public education.
The intensity of storms like Michael and Florence raise the bar for planning and preparation. Governments, businesses, and communities must plan ahead and work together during the quiet times before the storm returns.