Ready For The New Normal… In Weather?


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Sex, politics and the weather. Until someone can figure out which bathroom school kids can use, or until EVERY NIGHT isn’t a new story about dysfunctional politics in Washington… I’ll just talk about something non-controversial. Like the weather. I mean, at least THAT’S not controversial, right? Yep, weather. No controversy there. So… How are things going in Puerto Rico?

Geeze! Why does everything need to be so political? As we rolled into hurricane season, the worst of the climate deniers in Washington were either dropping out of the conversation or had their hands out for money for hurricane relief. It’s been one of the worst years ever, and it’s still weeks before the Hurricane season ends. Have we learned anything?

I HOPE we’ve learned that the climate is changing. The weather has been consistent with the changes predicted by climate scientists. Not just the three big hurricanes that we have seen so far in 2017, but changes that have been we documented for decades. Rising seas, melting glaciers, storms on the coasts, droughts in the interior, and of course a warming earth.

The conditions that are facing FEMA and other disaster agencies are different than a decade or two ago. It’s not just a matter of a bigger budget. The future will certainly require more money to address bigger storms and larger flood disaster zones. But it is also going to require different thinking from our leaders. Consider the following…

Acceleration: For decades climate scientists have said that the weather would change. It has. Then they told us the reason it was changing was “human activities”, including CO2 emissions, byproducts of industry, urban development (especially building on wetlands), the loss of forestlands, and of course… more people. The speed of change in our climate is still accelerating.

While we cannot predict what the weather will be tomorrow, we can predict that for at least the next 10 years the weather will be warmer, windier, wetter (on the coasts) and more destructive than 10 years ago. Climate change will only become faster. Expect that America will spend more money on storm damage every year.   

Frequency: A mid-term report card for 2017 could be… Houston: B+, Florida: B+, Puerto Rico: D- . Puerto Rico’s low score has less to do with FEMA, than the fact that Puerto Rico was hit by two hurricanes in two weeks. When one hurricane weakens infrastructure, the second needn’t be very strong to completely destroy whatever is left standing.

As the earth continues to warm, the chances of a double, or even triple hit by hurricanes increases. It takes months or years for a city to fully recover from hurricane damage. The first hit could happen in late November (end of the hurricane season) with a second hit a few months later when the next year’s season begins (in June). Cities with double hits, or even with a hit every 3 or 4 years, can expect insurance carriers to shrink or kill their coverage. In the past few years, the Federal government has picked up the business the Insurance Industry abandoned. But it has been a money-losing business.

Finances: Money affects everything. Communities with more money are often better engineered. More paved roads mean better access during floods. Higher priced properties are usually on land that is well graded, and without low spots that easily flood. Poor communities have fewer drains and uneven ground and “water traps” that frequently strand vehicles. Poor and poorly built communities are easily isolated by flood waters.  

Puerto Rico is very poor, with only half of the US median family income. They can’t afford to stockpile in advance of a storm, and they lack emergency equipment. Add to that the decades of financial crises. They lost key tax credits in the early 2000’s, defaulted on government debt in 2015,  and since then eliminated many government jobs that they need now to deal with this disaster. 

Before the storm, home mortgage defaults were already at a record high. Not surprisingly, few homes have wind or flood insurance. After the immediate disaster is taken care of, and lives are no longer at risk, Puerto Rico’s long-term survival… the ongoing fate of the island’s 3.4 million population… will depend on financing. Yes, America will help Puerto Rico, but will we invest in it? Especially if more storms are on the way? This horrid little question is going to be asked over and over again, as one post-disaster community after another looks for the billions of dollars they will need to rebuild.

Protection: Storms and floods will damage coastal cities, Tornados will tear up the center of the US, and dangerous rivers (Mississippi, Red, Ohio) will have record floods. In-between the storms, old buildings are repaired or torn down. But what prevention? What about the problems that make these storms so damaging? A seawall might keep out a high tide. Flood waters can be temporarily directed to underground storage tanks. Low lying areas can be raised. Or you could even build new wetlands and plant trees.

Over the past couple of decades very little has been done to reduce the risk of flooded cities. Instead, bad urban planning, often done to generate short-term revenues, has eliminated natural storm protection. Hurricane damage from Katrina was worse due to lost wetlands that once slowed incoming tides and soaked up flood waters. Preserving and expanding natural protection, engineering ways to keep water out, and developing systems to get flood waters out… could be the only thing that keeps the “potential” in our potential flood cities.     

Atlantic City, Boston, Charleston, Miami, New Orleans, New York, and Tampa… to name just a few US cities… are all on the flood city list.  Just 10 years ago, Boston completed the Big Dig, a project to ease traffic congestion in central Boston. At $22 billion, this is the most expensive highway project in the US to date. Construction projects of a similar or even greater size will be needed to save each city.  

Moving On: The big picture for global climate change can be too big to wrap your arms around. Let’s look at it more locally. In Houston, 50 inches of rain fell over 5 days during hurricane Harvey. To understand this, Houston is about 630 square miles. A gallon of water is 231 square inches. That equals 550 billion gallons of water. While this was only 1.5% of the water Harvey dumped on Texas, it’s too big a number for mere humans to understand. Have you ever seen an Olympic pool? They’re huge! In Houston 2 Olympic pools worth of water needed to get out of the city every minute! It’s just math. The water has got to go somewhere. But, when the tide is high… that water cannot get through to the sea.   

When the next storm arrives the same scenario will play out once again, and the city drowns. Areas closest to the water are usually the oldest part of town, and the most likely to flood. In a world where flood insurance is harder to obtain, how many times can the homeowners… or the city… afford to rebuild the most frequently flooded areas? Some cities may close neighborhoods rather than fight this losing battle.

“What happens to the homeowners?”, is the big question for the next few decades. Without insurance or local governments to buy out homeowners where can they turn? Don’t look to Washington! The Fed has no plans, and no appetite, for any kind of bailout!

A Way Out?: In 1900, less than 40% of the US population lived in cities; in 2015 it rose to over 80%. Storm soaked Florida has gone Urban even faster. At the same time, Florida went from 20% urban to 90%. Rural counties and small towns are less able to deal with big infrastructure projects than big cities. As sea levels rise, coastal populations will move into cities. That means we can protect fewer square miles of land, but at the cost of more urbanization around cities.

Perhaps, the solution is right under our noses. While the entire world is busy fighting climate change, another global change taking place… The Robot Revolution. Experts tell us that 50% of all of the jobs that exist today will be lost in just a decade or two. Without replacement positions, unemployment will rise to unprecedented levels. For this reason, governments around the world are considering how to adopt something called a UBI, which would provide all citizens with a stipend to replace lost income.     

With a greatly reduced need for paid employees, many worry that even with financial issues  taken care of by a UBS payment, people still need a purpose in life. Perhaps, these two efforts can go together. This could take any form, but imagine an organization something like the old Peace Corps. Make it a primarily volunteer organization, that allows citizens to work on projects to help before and after storms.

The Future: Climate change is still accelerating. Even the most optimistic plans to address urbanization and air pollution won’t stop or reverse the rise in global temperatures that make our weather more violent. And with more urbanization, there will be more creating bigger and more destructive storms

While two wrongs rarely make a right, we have a rare opportunity to take two problems and create one very timely solution. Many of our cities are at risk of flooding. We have seen early signs of how extensive our flooding risks are. Before cities flood, we need to develop a consensus on how each threatened city can be helped. When do we rescue a neighborhood, and when do we let it go? Which issues will be handled locally and which must be part of a central plan controlled by the Federal government?

Let’s not miss this opportunity! We will need many different kinds of skills to keep America’s cities above water and operating. Automation and artificial intelligence may make the second half of the 21st century a “jobless future”. But no job doesn’t mean no work. Enormous changes in the economy just might provide the volunteers to save us from the enormous changes in the environment. Let’s hope so! The future is now no farther away than the next change in the weather!

 

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