A Growing Number of Flood Survivors Are Seeking Answers

A Changing Climate Means A Changing Society. The Island Press Urban Resilience Project, Supported By The Kresge Foundation And The JPB Foundation, Is Committed To A Greener, Fairer Future.​ This Article Was Originally Published April 23, 2019 in Ensia. 

Susan Liley didn’t set out to become an activist. “A grandma, that’s all I am,” she says. But when her hometown of De Soto, Missouri, flooded four times in three years, Liley felt called to act.

After the first couple of floods, Liley did what she could do to help her neighbors: She dragged waterlogged furniture from a friend’s home and delivered eggs from her chickens to those without electricity. But the third time around, Liley says, “I got mad.”

Across the U.S., flood survivors are growing in number and — like Liley — they’re getting mad and fighting back. From city streets to subdivisions and trailer parks, they are comparing notes with neighbors and asking hard questions about the rising tide. They are messaging each other on Facebook, packing meeting halls and lawyering up. And, increasingly, they are seeking not just restitution, but answers. Flood survivors are identifying the root causes of repeated flooding and working toward solutions.

Most recently, their ranks were swelled by a March “bomb cyclone” in the Upper Midwest, which unleashed catastrophic flooding that was visible from space. According to the 2018 National Climate Assessment, climate change is driving more severe floods in many parts of the country.

Sea-level rise is inundating coastal cities, where “sunny-day flooding” is now a thing. Rising seas contribute to high-tide flooding, which has grown by a factor of five to 10 since the 1960s in many U.S. coastal communities — and that trend that is expected to accelerate in the future. Farther inland, increased rainfall is a major culprit. Because a warmer atmosphere holds more water vapor, the past few decades have seen many more “heavy precipitation events,” especially in the Northeast, Midwest and upper Great Plains. In the Northeast, for example, heavy rains pack 50 percent more water than they did before 1991. Not surprisingly, those deluges have led to more flooding from Albany, New York, to Duluth, Minnesota.

Not Just the Climate 

But climate isn’t the only reason we are seeing more floods. Ill-conceived development, especially in flood-prone areas, replaces water-absorbing forests and wetlands with impermeable surfaces — so there is simply nowhere for all that water to go. While the risks of building in a floodplain may seem obvious, such construction continues nonetheless — in part because waterfront properties are in high demand, commanding premium prices that boost real estate tax income for local governments.

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