Three years later…

Three years ago, our home was still without power after the flooding caused by the ten inches of rain from tropical storm Lee, falling on ground already saturated by hurricane Irene a few days before.  Standing water from the flooding was two blocks away.  Flooded basements were a block away. If we had not had a generator to keep our sump pump going, we would have wound up with at least several inches of water in our basement. It was a record flood of the Susquehanna in our town and the tributary creek behind our house nearly overtopped the flood wall that is designed to direct the water to the undeveloped flood plain on the other bank.

There are segments on the local news about the anniversary and saying that the area is almost recovered, glossing over the fact that property buyouts only became available to people in local towns after hurricane Sandy devastated the coast. Demolitions only began in earnest this spring and are still continuing.

There will be no recovery for those who left the area permanently after longtime homes were destroyed. Some businesses closed permanently in the aftermath.  Only some of the infrastructure repairs hae been completed.

One of the more disturbing elements of the situation is that there has been little to no preparation for the next severe flooding event which is sure to come with the increased threat of heavy rain that goes along with global warming.  We should be restoring wetlands along the river and its tributaries and re-designing our storm drainage and sewage systems which caused so much trouble in the last two record floods that have occurred in the last ten years. Work also needs to be done with our water system and electrical system to make them more robust in emergencies.

Yes, it is expensive to do these things, but more expensive not to do them and to be cleaning up and rebuilding – again – after the next flood.

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Personal note:  I haven’t been posting much lately because I managed to get pretty sick. I’m finally bouncing back and hope to have a few more posts out over the next week. Fingers crossed.

 

Slow recovery

Nearly every night on the news, there is coverage of devastation in some US state due to flood, wildfire, mudslide, tornado, hurricane, or ice/snowstorm. Solemn footage of some reporter surrounded by a tangle of building debris or downed trees and powerlines. If the disaster is widespread enough, the coverage may even go on for a couple of weeks. Invariably, though, the reporters and national attention move on to the next disaster scene, masking the truth that recovery, if possible, takes months or years.

I drove today though one of the neighborhoods in my town which was most severely affected in the September 2011 flood of the Susquehanna and its tributaries in the Southern Tier of New York. We had received ten inches of rain when the remnants of tropical storm Lee fell on ground already saturated by the fringe of hurricane Irene days before. First, there was flash flooding of the creeks, followed by record flooding of the Susquehanna. Some photos we took are here:

  https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.2019747698814.2103178.1397554070&type=1&l=f4365bbc43

 https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.2016067046800.2103029.1397554070&type=1&l=3df89ce2ba

You won’t see any of the neighborhood pictures here because it was cordoned off. Not even residents were allowed in for days. Even after the river had receded and water had been pumped out of houses and basements, storm water and sewage from the broken infrastructure system flowed into the basements, re-filling them. Some houses had to be pumped out four or five times.

Some houses were condemned. Some were repairable, but homeowners, many who had lived in their homes for decades, weren’t able to withstand the stress of rebuilding and worrying if it would happen again. A few properties were abandoned, while others were sold to speculators for pennies on the dollar. Some people were able to repair their homes with the help of federal flood insurance, while others relied on non-profits, friends, relatives, and savings to rebuild. Other homes were put on the market, some in a livable state and some not, but buyers were hard to come by.

There had initially been a tussle in Washington over funding FEMA’s response to Irene/Lee, but that was resolved. New York’s state government was very little help to us.

It wasn’t until the federal funding battle after Superstorm Sandy that New York State went to bat for us so that our area finally was able to get buyouts for some of our damaged properties, getting partial compensation to property owners and funds for the towns to tear down the houses and convert them to green space. It was too late for many of the affected homeowners, but it has helped some, and transformed the neighborhood into what I saw today.

The street is a patchwork of occupied houses with tidy lawns next to homes for sale – some repaired and some, surrounded by tall grass and overgrown shrubs, still in their flood-damaged state – next to lots where houses were recently leveled, covered in straw to protect grass seed, next to  larger-than-expected expanses of lawn where the demolitions were long enough ago  for the grass to have grown in. The nursing home that flooded is still sitting empty; they are building a new home in another part of town.

It still saddens me every time I drive through. For the neighborhood, nearly three years later, recovery continues, but it will never be complete.

 

Superstorm Sandy anniversary

This week, there are a lot of reports on the one year anniversary of superstorm Sandy, much of it revolving around how slow and difficult re-building has been and how much is left to do. While these reports are true and I understand the frustrations, the situation should not have been a surprise. Recovery from major disasters is usually slow. Compare today’s New Orleans to pre-Katrina. I live in a town that was affected by the flooding of the Susquehanna with tropical storm Lee in September, 2011. Some of the FEMA buyouts in my county are just going through now, and probably wouldn’t have happened at all if Sandy hadn’t been so devastating that it mustered additional federal disaster recovery funding for New York State.

The sad truth is that many homes and businesses that were destroyed should not be re-built in the same location, even if they are elevated. For decades, we have been building on barrier islands, river banks, shorelines, flood plains, hillsides that are at high risk for landslides, former marshes and wetlands, and all manner of unstable topography. We built various flood walls and levees and drainage systems and sea walls and planted wind breaks and tried to convince ourselves that we could control nature, but it is becoming increasingly evident how foolish we were. Barrier islands are meant to be temporary landforms, breaking and reforming when they are battered by winds and waves. The sand on the shores is meant to migrate. Floods are meant to deposit new soil on their floodplains and to change the path of the river bed. It’s why mature rivers develop bends and meanders. Marshes and other wetlands absorb some of the excess precipitation to blunt the effects of large storms and floods.

We got away with building where we shouldn’t have and interfering with the natural topography for a while, dealing with extreme weather events when they happened rarely, and might have gotten away with it for even longer, had we not been burning fossil fuels with abandon. Given the realities of climate change and the fact that, even if we finally muster the will to stop using fossil fuels quickly, the planet will continue to heat with increased severe weather events for decades to come,  we need to stop doing the things that got us into this mess in the first place.  It means not building at all in some especially vulnerable areas and building to strict codes regarding elevation and positioning of infrastructure in others.  Restoring wetlands and salt marshes. Increasing permeable areas so there is less run-off to deal with.  The list of changes we need to make is long.

Most important of all, we must stop all incentives, subsidies, tax breaks, regulatory loopholes, etc. for fossil fuels. It’s (well past) time that we transitioned to 100% renewable fuel sources. We have the technology to do so. There are scientific studies outlining plans to do so, including one specific to New York State.  http://www.stanford.edu/group/efmh/jacobson/Articles/I/NewYorkWWSEnPolicy.pdf  Bonus:  Offshore wind turbines can help blunt some of the force of hurricane winds.

We will have to weather more horrible storms and more instances of sustained bad weather, such as the stationary front that caused nine inches of rain and then-record flooding in my area in 2006 and the recent stalled storm system that recently devastated the Boulder CO area. And we will have to re-build, but we have to do it with an eye to what will be more secure in the future. And we have to keep the vast majority of the fossil fuels in the ground. No more excuses. It’s much, much too late for that.