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How to prepare for the next Hurricane Harvey

Preparing for the next Hurricane Harvey,Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Dan Drollette Jr , Sept 17,  Alice C. Hill is in the business of finding better ways to cope with the catastrophic risks posed by climate change—risks so bad, she says, that “most of us avoid talking about them at the dinner table.” A short list includes ocean acidification, out of control wildfires, long-lasting droughts, record-breaking heat waves that kill crops and humans, the spread of tropical diseases to temperate countries such as the United States, and massive, global-warming assisted hurricanes that cause extensive flooding—which she terms “rain bombs.”

In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, her skills have been in great demand.

A former member of the National Security Council and a former Special Assistant to the President, she led the development of a national policy to deal with the effects of climate change on national security—effects that institutions such as the Department of Defense call a “threat multiplier.” Since leaving the White House, Hill has been a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

In this interview, Hill describes the impacts of Hurricane Harvey, its connections to climate change, and how coastal cities could make themselves more resilient to the increased-intensity storms that climate change is likely to produce.

She addresses what coastal cities could do that is relatively cheap and independent of the federal government; and what the federal government could do that climate change-denying politicians could get on board with. Most importantly, Hill describes how to rebuild after the devastating storm in Texas and Louisiana, so that we do not repeat the same mistakes.

The Bulletin’s Dan Drollette caught up with Hill by phone in this interview. (Editor’s note: This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.)

“………….Trump called Harvey’s aftermath a “500-year flood.” But that term is not really true any more, because we’ll be seeing more of these epic storms, and they certainly will return more frequently than that phrase would suggest……

 I have not yet read an immediate study that says this particular storm is climate-caused. But certainly it is consistent with what we have said we can expect. They’ve got a one-foot sea level rise, which increased the storm surge. And this storm also had the expected extreme precipitation—a “rain bomb”—because so much rain fell at once. And there’s no place for it to go.

And that is all consistent with what we thought would occur with climate change. The storms come more quickly, because warmer water temperatures cause storms to form quickly and be more intense…….

 in the course of my work at the National Security Council, I did read what the scientists have issued, particularly in the form of the National Climate Assessment. And it says that we’re going to have more intense storms, with greater amounts of precipitation, and higher storm surges. All of this should not be a surprise to us, but it still is…..

These record-breaking events will be our new norm. And, of course, a lot of the resulting flood damage can be laid to development.

BAS: Is development part of the reason for this storm’s effects? Things like the paving-over of rice fields and prairies in Texas to make hundreds of square miles of roads and shopping mall parking lots? They sealed off a lot of land that could have been absorbing water.

HILL: Very much so. Our land-use decisions have affected the ability of water to drain, and if the water can’t drain easily it’s going to sit there and cause increased flooding. So no question, the development choices we’ve made have an impact. Paving over wetlands and reducing our greenscape has increased the risk—as well as the amount—of flooding near urban areas.

………The problem is that we don’t have building codes that reflect this new reality yet. They’re working on them, but those codes aren’t widespread. There’s only a few communities that have planned for catastrophic floods. New York has done more in this area than almost all communities, in trying to figure out how to build more resiliently, but it’s the exception rather than the rule.

Most of our current building codes don’t yet reflect the future risk from climate change. We need more flood-proofing, to prepare for the more severe floods that will be a natural result of climate change. And some areas have no building codes. Some have adopted older building codes, and have not updated them. The frequent argument is, it’s too expensive to change things. Even if you have a great building code, you have to have enforcement of it. So, there are many challenges still on the building front………..

Sometimes our default is to build and think we’ll have a permanent fixed barrier to always keep the water out. Instead, we should be thinking, in my opinion, about green infrastructure. Lloyd’s of London, that insurance company that’s been around in one form or other for hundreds of years, recently came out with a report that said that green infrastructure—like mangroves or wetlands—can keep a community safe, and at a cost that’s about 30 times cheaper than building a sea wall.

So, I believe it’s important to look at green infrastructure. And a lot of land-use decisions are not federal decisions, but local ones. So that’s where coastal communities can step up to the plate.

Now the trick is that to do it right, you’ve got to have a bigger, overall plan—water does not pay attention to local boundary lines.

So, towns, states, regions, have to plan together, and decide what they’re going to allow development for and how. If you let a subdivision to be put forward here, then do you have adequate drainage for it over there? If you lay down more concrete in a city, you need to make sure that the water has some place to go so we’re not just increasing the flooding risk. It’s a matter of looking at your evacuation routes and making sure you keep in mind the places for the water to go, as well as places for people to get out easily. And if it’s at sea-level, the communities involved may want to decide if it make sense to be investing in retro-fitting or improving a waste water treatment plant that’s going to be inundated in the future by sea rise.

But that means these towns or states have to plan together. Which does increase complexity.

So, a lot of this does not have to be from the federal government, but it is a matter of coordinating effort and putting good practices in place region-wide……..

we need to have resilience at the forefront of any planning and any spending. Because we’re really at risk for having thrown away that money if we don’t include planning for a hotter, wetter, more flood-prone future……http://thebulletin.org/preparing-next-hurricane-harvey11059

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September 2, 2017 - Posted by | climate change, USA

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