The Environment

Some Topics


  • Floods

    While water scarcity is a major concern, too much water falling too fast as rain will cause destructive flooding. Low lying developments around lakes and rivers are most vulnerable. One feature of global warming is increased rainfall in areas that previously were flood-free. Floods occur in many countries. In Canada and the USA recent floods have been called “the worst natural disasters.”

    In August 2016, prolonged rainfall in southern parts of the U.S. state of Louisiana resulted in catastrophic flooding that submerged thousands of houses and businesses. Many rivers and waterways, particularly the Amite and Comite rivers, reached record levels, and rainfall exceeded 20 inches (510mm) in multiple parishes. The flood has been called the worst US natural disaster since Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

    A National Geographic report described flooding:” Moving water has awesome destructive power. When a river overflows its banks or the sea drives inland, structures poorly equipped to withstand the water's strength are no match. Bridges, houses, trees, and cars can be picked up and carried off. The erosive force of moving water can drag dirt from under a building's foundation, causing it to crack and tumble. In the United States, where flood mitigation and prediction is advanced, floods do about $6 billion worth of damage and kill about 140 people every year. A 2007 report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that coastal flooding alone does some $3 trillion in damage worldwide. In China's Yellow River valley, where some of the world's worst floods have occurred, millions of people have perished in floods during the last century. When floodwaters recede, affected areas are often blanketed in silt and mud. The water and landscape can be contaminated with hazardous materials, such as sharp debris, pesticides, fuel, and untreated sewage. Potentially dangerous mold blooms can quickly overwhelm water-soaked structures. Residents of flooded areas can be left without power and clean drinking water, leading to outbreaks of deadly waterborne diseases like typhoid, hepatitis A, and cholera. Most flood destruction is attributable to humans' desire to live near picturesque coastlines and in river valleys. Aggravating the problem is a tendency for developers to backfill and build on wetlands that would otherwise act as natural flood buffers. Many governments mandate that residents of flood-prone areas purchase flood insurance and build flood-resistant structures. Massive efforts to mitigate and redirect inevitable floods have resulted in some of the most ambitious engineering efforts ever seen, including New Orleans's extensive levee system and massive dikes and dams in the Netherlands. And highly advanced computer modeling predicts where floods will occur and how severe they're likely to be.” (Floods are among Earth's most common–and most destructive–natural hazards. National Geographic. Accessed July 2018.)

    In Canada, floods occur five times as often as wildfires. A major flood occurred in Alberta. The 2013 Calgary and Southern Alberta Flood started on June 20, 2013 and was focused in communities in and around Calgary. Waters rose quickly and by June 21, 100,000 people had been evacuated. In Canmore, a town in Alberta's Rockies, over 220 millimeters (8.7in of rain) fell in just 36 hours, half of the town's annual average rainfall. In the town of High River, rainfall amounts at one weather station recorded 325 millimeters (12.8in) in less than 48 hours. The rain falling on already saturated ground, coupled with the steep watershed and heavy snow loads remaining in the front ranges of the Rocky Mountains, resulted in a rapid increase in the size and flow of several river. Total damage estimates exceeded C$5 billion. Receding waters gave way to a mammoth cleanup of affected areas, aided by a spontaneous volunteer campaign. [i] Floods paradoxically reduce the supply of fresh water suitable for human use. Flooding waters collect debris and spread microbes and toxins into fresh water supplies-ground water, shallow wells and aquifers may all be contaminated.

    Flooded communities have a big job as they attempt to replace homes, roads, and water supplies. Wet buildings become mold incubators. When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in August 2005 120,000 homes were damaged by flood waters. Even when flood damaged buildings dry out, mold growth is often excessive and prolonged because water remains in walls. Wet fiberglass insulation and plaster board usually have to be replaced. Some buildings cannot be restored to healthy conditions. Solomon et al measured high concentrations of mold indoors and outdoors in New Orleans following the flood. They concluded that persisting mold growth was a significant respiratory hazard and encouraged the use of personal protective equipment for workers and returning residents in order to prevent respiratory morbidity.[ii]

    Jarvis described the attempts to deal with flooding and the cost involved:” Flooding is the most common, and most expensive, natural disaster in the United States. Private insurers have long declined to cover it, leaving the government on the hook for disaster assistance after floods, Congress created the National Flood Insurance Program ( N.F.I.P.)in the late 1960s in response to a series of expensive floods caused by hurricanes and overflowing rivers. It offers insurance coverage, some of it subsidized, to communities that meet floodplain-management requirements; requires people who want loans to buy houses in dangerous places to buy it; and also provides grants for mitigation projects meant to reduce flooding damage, like elevating houses or buying out the owners of flood-prone homes. The N.F.I.P. was meant to encourage safer building practices. Critics argue that instead it created a perverse incentive — a moral hazard — to build, and to stay, in flood-prone areas by bailing people out repeatedly and by spreading, and in that way hiding, the true costs of risk.

    And then came Hurricanes Katrina, Wilma and Rita, which in 2005 left the N.F.I.P. with claims six times higher than it had seen in any previous year. To cover them, it borrowed $17.3 billion from the Treasury. Hurricane Sandy in 2012 meant another $6.25 billion in debt, along with allegations that insurance companies distributing FEMA funds were shorting policyholders; 2016, when there were floods in Louisiana, Texas, Virginia and elsewhere, managed to be the third-most-expensive year in the N.F.I.P.’s history even with no single standout catastrophe, deepening the hole further. Servicing the debt is expensive, but FEMA sees no way to repay it, Roy Wright, the N.F.I.P. administrator, told Congress.”[iii]

    [i]Wilkepedia. Alberta Floods.
    [ii] Gina M. Solomon; Mervi Hjelmroos-Koski; Miriam Rotkin-Ellman; S. Katharine Hammond. Airborne Mold and Endotoxin Concentrations in New Orleans, Louisiana, after Flooding, October through November 2005. Environ Health Perspect. 2006;114(9):1410-1420. ©2006National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.
    [iii] Brooke Jarvis. When Rising Seas Transform Risk Into Certainty. Along parts of the East Coast, the entire system of insuring coastal property is beginning to break down. NYT Climate Issue. April 18, 2017

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