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Cornell Student Articles on Topical Affairs

Responding To Urban Flooding – A Climate Change Crisis

If you saw the recent images of rain pouring into New York City’s subway stations during a summer storm, you may have been shocked – or maybe not. That’s because, although the flooding partially stemmed from infrastructural issues at specific stops, overall, the rushing waters are emblematic of a larger problem. In the face of climate change, more cities are experiencing serious flooding and everyone from federal and state governments to individual landlords and homeowners need to find ways to address the crisis.

Not Just Heat

Rains and flooding are often overlooked in conversations about climate change because the colloquial name, global warming, tends to emphasize a single facet of the issue: heat. And yes, the heat is an undeniable problem; according to a study published in Plos One and reported by the BBC, New York City is on track to be 4 degrees Celsius warmer by 2050, while Ljubljana could be as much as 8 degrees Celsius warmer during the hottest months. These aren’t deadly heat increases, but heat tends to kill those who are already physically fragile. Flooding and other natural disasters, on the other hand, can kill anyone while also leaving extensive damage in their wake.

City Formation Encourages Flooding

While climate change is at the heart of our overall climate crisis, cities are uniquely vulnerable to these disasters because of their own development trends. In particular, cities are rife with what are known as “impervious surfaces” like sidewalks and roads that don’t absorb water. This is a problem because impervious or non-absorbent surfaces cause storm runoff to move more quickly, while also increasing the volume since it all remains on the surface. In other words, the nature of rain today has changed, but the change in drainage systems have made that environmental change that much more serious.

Preparing For Disaster 

In order to appropriately address the continued flooding that will impact cities in the coming decades, we need to develop strategies that acknowledge the specific challenges that cities face. These include issues of density – and therefore of traffic, how to successfully implement an emergency alert system, and providing recovery support that specifically targets tenants and not just property owners. We also need to find ways to supplement and modify city landscapes so that impervious surfaces are balanced out by natural drainage.

One key tool that could help save lives in cities is remote-controlled barriers for flooded roads. This approach is actively supported by Rick Knabb, the senior hurricane expert for the Weather Channel. Early this July, Forbes cited one of Knabb’s tweets, which recommended these barriers because “At least 43 have died in U.S. floods while driving in 2019… Too many people, including a few school bus drivers, will never abide by Turn Around Don’t Drown.” Images of abandoned cars and washed out roads alone don’t seem to be keeping drivers off dangerously flooded roads, but barricades would.

For those living in cities, particularly those who are property owners, another key part of managing the new epidemic of flooding is addressing how flooding impacts owners’ ability to sell their properties. For example, it can be especially hard to sell damaged homes or to sell homes that don’t meet new building requirements for flood zones, like those introduced in Houston over the last few years. When trying to sell in a flood zone, then, homeowners and agents should be forthright about the new regulations and what buyers need to do to bring the property into compliance. It’s not the people won’t buy in these areas if the price and other conditions are right, but that they need to know what they’re investing in before they buy.

Perhaps one of the most challenging solutions to climate change-related flooding is the lack of protective wetlands around cities. Wetlands are an ideal way to absorb runoff from heavy rains, yet they’re actually disappearing three times as quickly as forests globally. In fact, between 1970 and 2015, Latin American countries lost 60% of their wetlands, and Africa lost 42%, ahead of the global average loss of 35%. Unfortunately, it’s more difficult to restore wetlands than to plant more trees, but even individual homeowners can protect their homes from flooding through appropriate landscaping. It won’t solve the larger problem, but it can minimize the damage.

Be On Alert

Everyone needs to stay alert to the potential dangers of sudden urban flooding; unlike what our past experience tells us, much of this flooding actually occurs during heavy normal rains, not necessarily during hurricanes or other extreme weather conditions. And as climate change continues to exacerbate weather conditions more generally, these seemingly ordinary yet catastrophic weather events will become more common. 

Google is currently working on a better emergency alert system that will cover both major disasters and conditions like serious flooding, but our goal should be to minimize the likelihood of such events. That begins by educating everyone in flood-prone areas on what to do when flooding strikes, but it also demands infrastructural change that addresses the special vulnerability of cities and makes them safer for the people living there. 

It’s too late to get ahead of climate change, but we can respond aggressively.

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