Overlapping Disasters Expose Harsh Climate Reality: The U.S. Is Not Ready
CHRISTOPHER FLAVELLE, ANNE BARNARD, BRAD PLUMER, MICHAEL KIMMELMAN
In Louisiana and Mississippi, nearly one million people lack electricity and drinking water after a hurricane obliterated power lines. In California, wildfire menaces Lake Tahoe, forcing tens of thousands to flee. In Tennessee, flash floods killed at least 20; hundreds more perished in a heat wave in the Northwest. And in New York City, 7 inches of rain fell in just hours Wednesday, drowning people in their basements.
Disasters cascading across the country this summer have exposed a harsh reality: The United States is not ready for the extreme weather that is now becoming frequent as a result of a warming planet.
“These events tell us we’re not prepared,” said Alice Hill, who oversaw planning for climate risks on the National Security Council during the Obama administration. “We have built our cities, our communities, to a climate that no longer exists.”
“这些事件告诉我们，我们还没有做好准备，”奥巴马政府时期在国家安全委员会(National Security Council)负责气候风险规划的爱丽丝·希尔(Alice Hill)说。“我们是按照已经不复存在的气候建设我们的城市和社区。”
In remarks Thursday, President Biden acknowledged the challenge ahead.
“And to the country, the past few days of Hurricane Ida and the wildfires in the West and the unprecedented flash floods in New York and New Jersey is yet another reminder that these extreme storms and the climate crisis are here,” said Mr. Biden, who noted that a $1 trillion infrastructure bill pending in Congress includes some money to gird communities against disasters. “We need to do — be better prepared. We need to act.”
The country faces two separate but interlaced problems, according to climate and resilience experts.
First, governments have not spent enough time and money to brace for climate shocks that have long been predicted: everything from maintaining and fortifying electrical lines and storm water systems to clearing forests of undergrowth in order to reduce the ferocity of wildfires.
“We’re feeling all the effects of that deferred maintenance,” said Kristina Dahl, a senior climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
忧思科学家联盟(Union of Concerned Scientists)的资深气候科学家克里斯汀娜·达尔(Kristina Dahl)说，“我们感受到了这种延期维护的所有影响。”
But there’s a second, more sobering lesson: There are limits to how much the country, and the world, can adapt. And if nations don’t do more to cut greenhouse gas emissions that are driving climate change, they may soon run up against the outer edges of resilience.
“If we already can’t cope with where we are, then there’s little hope that it’s going to improve in a warming climate,” Dr. Dahl said.
The country’s vulnerability in the face of extreme weather was punctuated by the downpour that flooded the country’s largest city. New York City has invested billions of dollars in storm protection since Hurricane Sandy in 2012, investments that seemed to do little to blunt the impact of the deluge.
Rain poured down in furious torrents, turning the subway system into a kind of flume ride. Central Park recorded 7.19 inches of rain, nearly double the previous record set in 1927 for the same date, according to the National Weather Service, which issued the city’s first-ever flash flood emergency alert.
Ahead of the storm, city and state officials activated preparation plans: clearing drains, erecting flood barriers in the subway and other sensitive areas, warning the public. But the rainfall dumped more water, and faster, than what city factored into its new storm water maps as an “extreme” flood event.
The pattern of damage reflects the relationship between climate exposure and racial inequality: impacts were more apparent in low-income communities of color, which, because of historic inequalities, are more prone to flooding, receive less maintenance from city services, and frequently experience lax housing code enforcement.
Most of those killed in New York City drowned when floodwaters rushed into their basement apartments. Many such apartments do not meet safety requirements, but have proliferated as affordable housing for the working poor and undocumented immigrants who may fear complaining to authorities about safety violations.
In one case, Tara Ramskriet, 43, and her son Nick, 22, drowned when water filled their basement apartment in the Hollis section of Queens so quickly family members could not pull them out against the flow and a wall collapsed, trapping them inside.
Neighbors were outraged, saying it took fatalities to bring city inspectors to the scene.
“This happens all the time,” said Jennifer Mooklal, 33, who lives across the street from the Ramskriets. “Even if it’s just rain, our basement gets flooded. We’ve been dealing with this problem for years and have been asking the city but no one is listening to us.”
Damage from extreme weather, and threats to human life, will only increase as the planet warms. For every 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit of global warming, the atmosphere holds about 7 percent more moisture, scientists have found. That means much heavier rainfall when storms do occur.
Across the continental United States, the heaviest downpours have become more frequent and severe, according to the federal government’s National Climate Assessment. The Northeast has seen 50 percent more rainfall during the heaviest storms compared with the first half of the 20th century.
根据联邦政府的《国家气候评估报告》(National Climate Assessment)，在美国大陆，最强的暴雨变得更加频繁和严重。与20世纪上半叶相比，在最猛烈的风暴中，东北地区在最严重的暴风雨期间的降雨量增加了50%。
New York City is particularly vulnerable to flooding. Three-fourths of the city is covered by impervious surfaces like asphalt, which means runoff is channeled into streets and sewers rather than being absorbed by the ground.
And the city’s century-old subway system was not designed for a warming climate. Even on dry days, a network of pumps pours out 14 million gallons of water from its tunnels and stations. Heavy rains can overwhelm the system, as they did on Wednesday.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority has invested $2.6 billion in resiliency projects since Hurricane Sandy inundated the city’s subways in 2012, including fortifying 3,500 subway vents, staircases and elevator shafts against flooding. Still, this week’s flash floods showed that the system remains vulnerable.
自从2012年飓风“桑迪”淹没纽约市地铁以来，大都会运输署(Metropolitan Transportation Authority)已经在抗灾项目上投资了26亿美元以抵御洪水，包括加固3500个地铁通风口、楼梯和电梯井。不过，本周的洪水暴发表明，该系统仍然很脆弱。
One reason is that city and federal officials focused on protecting against the kind of coastal storm surge that Sandy wrought, according to Amy Chester, managing director of Rebuild by Design, a nonprofit group that works on climate resilience.
致力于气候抗灾能力的非营利组织重建设计(Rebuild by Design)总干事艾米·切斯特(Amy Chester)说，一个原因是，城市和联邦官员把重点放在了防范飓风“桑迪”造成的那种沿海风暴潮上。
But in the case of Hurricane Ida, the main threat was rainwater flowing downhill, not storm surge pushing in from the coast. So much water fell that it overwhelmed storm drains, overflowed riverbanks and poured into basements, from the hilly parts of Manhattan’s Washington Heights to the inland flats of Jamaica in Queens.
The investments that protect against storm surge differ from those that guard against extreme rain, Ms. Chester said.
Coping with severe rainfall means more places to absorb and hold water, whether that’s so-called green solutions like parks, or traditional structures like underground retention tanks. And it means increasing the capacity of the sewer system to handle a greater volume of water.
Because New York has mostly been spared the type of severe rainfall that occurred Wednesday, officials have made it less of a priority.
Other countries have heeded the warnings of climate scientists and acted.
In the Netherlands, where much of the country lies below sea level, the government strengthened flood design standards and in 2007 created a program called Room for the River, which in essence authorized the wholesale redesign and rebuilding of dozens of vulnerable watersheds around cities like Amsterdam and Rotterdam. The goal was to prepare for the sort of one-in-10,000-year floods that Dutch scientists were warning might become more frequent.
在大部分地区都低于海平面的荷兰，政府加强了洪水设计标准，并在2007年创建了一个名为“河流空间”(Room for the River)的项目，该项目的本质是授权对阿姆斯特丹和鹿特丹等城市周围数十个脆弱的分水岭进行大规模重新设计和重建，目的是为万年一遇的洪水做好准备，荷兰科学家警告说，这种洪水可能会变得更加频繁。
In that country, government water boards have the ultimate authority over land use. If they determine an area is needed for flood protection, its residents must move.
Specific taxes are dedicated to water management. There is no national flood insurance program for residents in flood zones in the Netherlands because, the Dutch argue, the government’s job is to protect people from floods, not help homeowners rebuild in areas vulnerable to damage.
Among other things, Room for the River created dozens of new parks, enhancing underserved neighborhoods, resettling populations living in flood zones into new homes out of harm’s way, and girding the nation’s economy in the process.
It’s a different story in the United States, where efforts to adapt and mitigate American cities for severe storms and rising seas have been plodding. There are many reasons: Government’s reluctance to impose on private property, a legacy of racial and economic injustice, and a system of governance and regulation that often moves far slower than the hastening pace of climate change.