Weather adds stress to America's crumbling infrastructure
FILE - In this Sunday, Sept. 16, 2018, file photo, a member of the North Carolina Task Force urban search and rescue team wades through a flooded neighborhood looking for residents who stayed behind as Florence continued to dump heavy rain in Fayetteville, N.C. According to data released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on Tuesday, May 4, 2021, the new United States normal is not just hotter, but wetter in the eastern and central parts of the nation and considerably drier in the West than just a decade earlier. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
As President Joe Biden and Senate Republicans grapple with determining the cost and layout of a new infrastructure plan, experts that AccuWeather spoke with explained how both a lack of upkeep as well as upward trends in damaging weather have cumulated into an "infrastructure crisis."
Dr. Marccus Hendricks told AccuWeather in an interview that the current infrastructure crisis the U.S. is facing stems mostly from prioritizing new infrastructure and focusing on initial construction and installation without attention to maintenance and management over the lifecycle of these assets. Hendricks is an assistant professor of urban studies and planning and the director of the stormwater infrastructure resilience and justice lab at the University of Maryland.
"We've allowed these systems to drop below a condition where we can fiscally save money by doing more incremental investments to maintain these assets," he said, explaining that it now requires a large investment to repair these systems in a way that meets the needs of the community.
Dr. Marccus Hendricks is an assistant professor of urban studies and planning and the director of the stormwater infrastructure resilience and justice lab at the University of Maryland.
Like a compromised support beam, the neglect of the systems over the decades has set the stage for pending catastrophes as damaging weather hits the communities.
"The crisis has been in the making in terms of every single day with every car passing on a road, with every storm event requiring systems to manage stormwater runoff," Hendricks said.
What's crumbling beneath our feet
It's long been acknowledged that a warming atmosphere and ocean have contributed to stronger, more intense natural disasters such as hurricanes, but the changing climate has also had its impact on the more mundane weather events. And as the more common weather events, such as a simple rainfall, grows, the more it outgrows and strains the infrastructure designed for a past age and climate.
"Our stormwater systems as they're currently installed and designed will require complete overhaul in terms of being able to address the needs of these wet weather events in light of climate change," Hendricks said.
FILE- In this Monday, Oct. 5, 2015, file photo, Residents of a lakeside neighborhood walk across Overcreek Bridge by the remains of a failed dam in Columbia, S.C. Officials say the structure beneath a road collapsed Monday afternoon following days of heavy rain, nearly emptying a lake in a few minutes. No one was injured. South Carolina had problems with crumbling roads and bridges and old drinking water systems and dams long before the historic floods of the past week. Now the state faces what will likely be hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars of bills to fix washed out roads and bridges and destroyed dams. (AP Photo/Jay Reeves, File)
As the climate changes and warms, more water evaporates. For every 1 degree Fahrenheit increase in temperature, the atmosphere can hold around 4% more water vapor, leading to heavier rain and increased risk of flooding of rivers and streams, according to Climate Central.
Since the 1950s, the wettest day of the year has grown wetter in 79% of the 244 cities analyzed by Climate Central in a research brief from 2019. In addition to this, even though 78% of the cities analyzed have data dating back at least a century, 35% of them have set rainfall records since 1990.
"One of the things that we've noticed, as it relates to flooding anyways, is especially in the last, let's say, 20 to 30 years or so, is that we've seen flood risk increasingly get worse in the country," Chad Berginnis, the executive director of the Association of State Floodplain Managers, told AccuWeather.
Chad Berginnis, the executive director of the Association of State Floodplain Managers.
Some communities, however, are facing a disproportionate threat of flood risk. In March 2021, an analysis of 38 major cities by the real estate brokerage Redfin found that once-redlined neighborhoods with a large population of people of color were at a greater danger of flooding caused by climate change, Reuters reported.
"Redlining" refers to a practice, common from the 1930s into the late 1960s, in which mortgage lenders refused loans in parts of the cities with mainly large minority populations. The mortgage lenders would carve up the map in red, hence the name. As a result, the practice reduced the opportunities to own homes and investments in those areas.
The analysis found that of the cities analyzed, there are $107 billion worth of homes in formerly redlined areas at high flood risk compared to $85 billion worth of homes in areas marked green as best for loans, providing a glimpse at how redlining, while now illegal, had lasting consequences on today's generations.
"Communities of color have always faced issues of elevated risk, Hendricks said, "whether it's the sighting of land areas that were set aside for them to develop their communities and those areas usually being lower-lying areas or flood plains where no one else wanted to live or even thinking about the ways in which redlining was formally incorporated within municipalities to sequester and segregate certain communities and to be able to dictate which communities receive services and had the opportunity to own or buy housing."
"When you look at those [redlining] maps, they look strikingly similar to high flood risk [maps]," Redfin Senior Economist Sheharyar Bokhari, a co-author of the study, told Reuters.
Ironically, several fair housing organizations accused Redfin of systematic racial discrimination in a lawsuit during 2020, saying the online company offered fewer services to homebuyers and sellers in minority communities in a type of digital redlining, The Associated Press reported.
Hendricks added that civil rights, social justice and environmental injustice across the country are connected to "what we're contemporarily seeing as well as what we've historically seen in terms of disenfranchisement and marginalized communities being underserved or unserved all together."
How much are these events costing us?
With an increase in damaging weather events, it's only natural to see an increase in costs alongside them.
From 1980 into 2021, the U.S. has sustained 291 weather and climate disasters where the overall cost of damages reached or exceeded $1 billion, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Over the 41 years, these disasters have claimed the lives of more than 14,000 people and have racked up a price tag in excess of $1.9 trillion.
According to the NOAA data, the number of those events has increased each decade from 1980 through 2019.
The year 2020 was no less destructive. Hurricane Laura damaged the coastal area of southern Louisiana, broke water systems and severely damaged the area's electric grid; a record-breaking wildfire season scorched more than 10.2 million acres across the American West and destroyed several towns in California, Oregon and Washington; and storms and severe flooding along the shoreline of Lake Michigan in January caused significant damage to roads, homes and Port Milwaukee.
As Americans dealt with not only a global pandemic, but possibly even job loss and financial strain, 2020 generated a record-breaking 22 billion-dollar events, claiming 262 lives and costing $96.4 billion in damage. It shattered the previous annual record of 16 disaster events that occurred both in 2011 and 2017.
Carolyn Kousky, the executive director of the Wharton Risk Management and Decision Process Center at the University of Pennsylvania, told AccuWeather in an interview that low- and moderate-income households and communities typically struggle with access to resources for rebuilding efforts following disasters, despite the allocation of disaster aid.
Carolyn Kousky, the executive director of the Wharton Risk Management and Decision Process Center at the University of Pennsylvania.
"There's a common misperception that for big disaster events you can rely on federal disaster," Kousky said. But disaster aid is instead extremely limited and is often delayed in reaching households, she added, creating a recovery gap for lower-income households and communities after the disaster.
On the other hand, she added, there are localized events, such as intense rainfall, that are worsening with climate change that can cause flooding, but the disaster may be limited to just be one small community and neighborhood. Due to the small scale, it doesn't rise to the level that would enable the community to qualify for federal resources. But even the federal funding, such as grants from FEMA in the wake of the larger disasters, only goes so far.
The federal grants aren't designed to bring homes back to pre-disaster conditions. Instead, they are intended to make homes safe and habitable again after a disaster, Kousky said.
Another form of federal aid comes from the big events when Congress decides to allocate money through the Department of Housing and Urban Development, but it generally takes years before the money makes it into the pockets of the people impacted by the disaster.
File - In this Sept. 12, 2008, file photo, fire destroys homes along the beach on Galveston Island, Texas, as Hurricane Ike approaches. In 2015, state reports showed more than a third of the $3 billion in federal disaster recovery funds from hurricanes Ike and Dolly remained unspent seven and a half years after the storms battered the Texas coast. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip, File)
"The challenge here, too, is that financial recovery really underpins all other aspects of recovery. So if you don't have the resources to make your home safe again and to get back into your home, then that causes all these negative sort of consequences," Kousky said.
For example, someone might have to divert funds from other important needs like health care to pay for keeping a home safe. The stress, she added, could also impact mental health.
FILE- In this Oct. 30, 2012, file photo, a couple surveys the remains of the home owned by the woman's parents that burned to the ground during Superstorm Sandy in the Breezy Point section of New York. New York health officials estimate about 700,000 residents are still experiencing mental health problems related to the storm, which hit on Oct. 29, 2012. New Jersey officials did not have a similar estimate but in the 15 months after Sandy, the state supported a disaster mental health program that served 500,000 people. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, File)
As far as insurance goes, Kousky told AccuWeather that as climate disasters grow more severe, public policy over insuring losses from them may also change.
"As climate change is increasing the frequency and severity of many types of natural disasters, we're starting to see areas around the country where insurance becomes very difficult to get or extremely expensive," Kousky said, adding that they started to see signs of that kind of stress in California after the wildfires in 2017 and 2018.
Another example Kousky gave was that in general, the impact of sea levels on coastal area could rise through coastal flooding becoming more common.
"That's not a risk anymore," Kouksy said. "That's a certainty and we don't insure certainties, so this is going to start to be a problem in many parts of the country."
Building for tomorrow's weather
When planning for infrastructure to go up against floods, Berginnis suggests not designing it for today's weather, but for the flood conditions that might be realistic in the future, and Hendricks echoed his concerns.
"We can only expect for the intensity and frequency of wet weather and rainfall events to increase," Hendricks said. "With these increasing rainfall events, it adds a significant amount of pressure to existing systems."
However, Hendricks added that an additional challenge when planning ahead lies in the possibility that by the time the lengthy bureaucratic process is through, the designs that were developed for the systems and the costs associated with them may not be enough with the environment changing and atmospheric conditions evolving.
FILE - In this April 6, 2021, file photo traffic moves over the George Washington Bridge as seen from Fort Lee, N.J. While President Joe Biden pitches his infrastructure plan to the American public, the real work of delivering his legislative agenda takes place behind the scenes. Biden’s 15-person legislative is charged with maneuvering and mapping out the process of actually getting his agenda passed on Capitol Hill. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)
As far as managing insurance prices goes, Kousky suggests a tighter partnership between insurance, local-level building code and land-use decisions.
"What makes insurance cheaper and more available is lowering the risk, and so it really comes back to changing how we're living in high-risk areas, and that is a much harder conversation to have with people," Kousky said.
A woman is helped by Philadelphia firefighters after her evacuation from a flooded neighborhood, after Tropical Storm Isaias, Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2020, in Philadelphia. The storm spawned tornadoes and dumped rain during an inland march up the U.S. East Coast after making landfall as a hurricane along the North Carolina coast. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
In addition, Hendricks added that part of the answer of how to build for the future lies not only in climate adaptation, but also climate resilience -- and making sure no communities fall behind in the process.
"If we don't provide an opportunity for just transitions, allowing for communities of color [and] low-income communities to be able to take advantage of some of these emerging technologies and green infrastructures and low-impact development, then essentially we perpetuate the same inequalities that we've seen historically and we leave communities behind," Hendricks said. "As some communities get greener, healthier or resilient, communities that have been historically overburdened and again underserved will be left behind and still burdened with antiquated systems of the past."
He went on to say that a vulnerable segment of a system anywhere makes the entire system more vulnerable.
"As cliché as it may sound, when it comes to infrastructure systems, we are quite literally only as strong as our weakest link," Hendricks said. "In order for us all to be resilient, we have to serve those vulnerable and underserved aspects of the system first."
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