Monday, September 11, 2017

Is Rochester ready for Harvey?

Climate Change is complicated. It can and does contain so many consequences (some known and who knows how many unknowns?) that we won’t be able to prepare for all of them. This tragic case is further exasperated by the climate denial meme that turns our innate ability to imagine adaptation solutions upside-down. Instead of doing what our species does best, adapt to changing conditions, and maybe in the process become a better and more just species, we are still pushing back against the very science that proves Climate Change.

What’s been normal for humanity is to try and understand the nature of disasters and plan for avoiding or dealing with them. To do so in this worldwide crisis, we need as much information as possible and many minds engaged in working out just what this man-made climate change means.  

Climate Change is more than protecting ourselves against the most striking forms of this change, flooding, and wildfires. It is the infinite vicissitudes that come with the interactions among Earth’s natural ecosystems, man’s built environment, past environmental pollution, and the rapid introduction of all that trapped energy from the Sun. Granted, we cannot prepare for every climate scenario, including stuff we don’t know about yet, but we should be able to prepare for the most obvious and the worse.

As many climate activists watch the tragedy playing out in Houston, we are reminded of similar disasters in the USA: Hurricanes Katrine and Sandy. They were most likely amplified by warming waters fueling more violent storms in heavily populated regions.

Hurricane Harvey, the latest US climate disaster, is playing out as one would expect in the presence of rampant sprawl, inadequate infrastructure preparation, and decades of insufficient climate action caused by climate denial. Even now, with the climate-denying Trump administration providing federal emergency help in Houston, the public is getting a mixed message. The message that this disaster was Climate-Change related and begs for adequate planning in all our vulnerable regions is scorned by this administration.  

Besides pulling the rug from under the National Climate Assessment, Trump’s wrong-headed ideology is quietly at work undermining our ability to adapt to Climate Change:

Trump reversed regulations to protect infrastructure against flooding just days before Hurricane Harvey Ten days before Hurricane Harvey descended upon Texas on Friday, wreaking havoc and causing widespread flooding, President Donald Trump signed an executive order revoking a set of regulations that would have made federally funded infrastructure less vulnerable to flooding. The Obama-era rules, which had not yet gone into effect, would have required the federal government to take into account the risk of flooding and sea-level rise as a result of climate change when constructing new infrastructure and rebuilding after disasters. Experts are predicting that Harvey — the most powerful storm to hit the US since 2004 — will cost Texas between $30 billion and $100 billion in damage. (August 28, 2017) Business Insider [more on Climate Change in our area]

We must ask ourselves: was Houston’s infrastructure adequately prepared for the predictions of climate science? In a region that gets large hurricanes and with Climate Change amplifying those storms, it would have been prudent to prepared the public and their infrastructures for the kind of deluge Hurricane Harvey brought.

Rochester’s rainfall is nowhere near the amount that Houston gets, but still, remembering last spring, we can get a lot of heavy rainfall that causes a lot of flooding—causing shoreline property damage and health problems when waste water treatment plants overflow. For us, this kind of rainfall is the most obvious consequence of Climate Change—though there are many others that affect us here.

Towards adapting to more heavy rains in our region, I found this joint effort by Monroe County and the City to contain our storm waters in the City’s Climate Action Plan (CAP) hopeful:

(NOAA) partnered to develop a Green Infrastructure Retrofit Manual, which focuses on green infrastructure design in our region that addresses water quality, flood prevention, air quality, habitat and wildlife, health and wellness, as well as climate resiliency. The manual will include guidance for design, construction, operation and maintenance of green infrastructure retrofit techniques. Design standards for green infrastructure practices include tree planting, porous pavement, bioretention facilities, rain gardens, green roofs, and retrofits for existing nongreen infrastructure facilities (such as drainage ponds). Operation and maintenance guidance will address inspection techniques, schedules, and performance monitoring. (page 47, CAP)

Check out this level of cooperation in the Green Infrastructure Retrofit Manual on a mutual problem that relates to Climate Change adaptation in our region:

Monroe County and the City of Rochester have been proactive in addressing flooding problems. Officials employed nature-based solutions, including bioswales, permeable sidewalks, and green roofs, using these projects as opportunities to test techniques, build skills, and get buy-in to support more use of green infrastructure. (PEER-TO-PEER CASE STUDY: MONROE COUNTY, NEW YORK Designing Green Infrastructure Standards For Retrofits)

This joint effort to prevent flooding problems is just one hopeful sign that we are finally acknowledging the problem of heavy rainfall (though Monroe County still has trouble saying, ‘Climate Change’). But there’s a lot more we need to do to educate the public and get all the communities around the Great Lakes Basin to prevent raw sewage overflows into the same ecosystem where we get our drinking water. And there are many more likely changes coming to our region because of Climate Change that will we have to address soon enough.
Because we have dragged our feet so long on addressing Climate Change, we have stored up a lot of heat (energy) in our atmosphere and oceans. All that must play out in the coming years, where we will have to adapt even if we go 100% renewable energy and stop all further manmade greenhouse gas emissions. A species adapts or perishes, as billions before us have done for billions of years.

We have a lot to do and a lot to learn about what Climate Change actually means to us and the planet we live on. The least we should expect from ourselves and our government, even as we continue to argue about or ignore the hard science behind this self-inflicted crisis, is that we prepare for the most obvious disasters. Containing our waters as they increase and threaten our water quality and our now critical infrastructures is first and foremost for our region.
In the near future, we will have to prepare for events humanity has never experienced before (like what’s happening in the Caribbean “Hurricane Irma, a Category 5 Hurricane, Makes Landfall in Caribbean”, (9/6/2017 New York Times).  

If your community (like Rochester, Irondequoit, Brighton, and Brockport in Monroe County) is part of New York State’s Climate Smart Communities program, they’d be getting more information how to prevent local flooding in a time of Climate Change.

Sept.14 Webinar: Building Flood Resiliency at the Local Level Building Flood Resiliency at the Local Level A Climate Smart Communities Webinar, Thursday, September 14, 2017 at 10:30 AM - 12:00 PM,The frequency of heavy downpours in the Northeast U.S. increased by 71 percent between 1958 and 2012. The costs associated with flood damage are rising across the nation and in New York State. Local governments have a key role in protecting their communities against flooding. In this webinar, participants will learn about how one New York town lowered its flood insurance premium rates by participating in the federal Community Rating System. Speakers will also discuss community flood resiliency in general and a project in Monroe County that is seeking to reduce flood-related problems, in partnership with the Genesee/Finger Lakes Regional Planning Council and The Nature Conservancy. (September 7, 2017 New York State Department of Environmental Conservation)

Rochester may not have to prepare for a Hurricane Harvey anytime soon. But keeping our region healthy as our climate warms should be keeping us busy enough.

Time passes. 

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