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Photo: These natural-color images show flooding across Midland County as observed by the Operational Land Imager (OLI) on Landsat 8. The pair shows the Tittabawassee River on May 20, 2020 (right), compared to June 3, 2019 (left). NASA Earth Observatory images by Joshua Stevens, using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey.
In late May, the town of Midland, Michigan suffered severe inundation that has been described as a “500-year flooding event”. Although there was no loss of life, the flooding was so extreme and damaging that it dwarfed all other flooding events in living memory. At least 10,000 residents were displaced, and this displacement was complicated by the global pandemic that has swept through the United States. As evacuees arrived at shelters, each person was screened for symptoms of COVID-19, and was then escorted to a spot that was purposely separated from other evacuees by as much space as possible. But as more and more people trickled into the shelters, that spacing became very difficult to maintain. The challenges of coping with any natural disaster is hard enough, but to couple those challenges with an extraordinary public health crisis makes the effort truly Herculean in scope and ramification.
The flooding in Midland has been called ‘a nightmare situation’ that developed after days of heavy rainfall. All this precipitation poured into the lakes at Edenville and Sanford- and the lakes were quickly filled to the brim. Unfortunately, the dam at Edenville had been known as a problem structure for some time; in fact, its license had been revoked by federal inspectors in 2018. The stated reason for the forfeiture of the license was simple: the dam was deemed unlikely to withstand a significant flood. Fast forward two years, and that ‘significant flood’ materialized- at the worst possible moment.
In addition to the hazards posed by the global pandemic, the state of Michigan- as well as much of the rest of the United States- has been embroiled in momentous and widespread civil disturbances and demonstrations. Close to 20% of the US work force is furloughed or otherwise unemployed due to the global COVID-19 pandemic. A large number of people who have been unable to make their rent or mortgage payments are hovering on the brink of homelessness. Emergency services, National Guard, local and federal law enforcement, food banks, shelters, and health care services were already overwhelmed even before the rain began to fall. And then, the rain began to fall- relentlessly.
The run-off from the heavy storms filled Lake Wixom, which was held back by the Edenville Dam. This earthen embankment dam was built in 1924 by a former circus owner named Frank Wixom, who was presumably not an expert engineer. To his credit, Wixom’s earthen dam contained the lake for 94 years, even holding up for a couple of years after it was inspected and deemed unlikely to withstand a major flood. Two years after that inspection, however, Frank Wixom’s old dam finally collapsed.
Much had changed in the years since 1924, including a lot of development along the river as well as the construction of a second dam at Sanford, about ten miles downstream. When the Edenville dam collapsed, a powerful wall of water hurtled towards the next dam, and quickly overwhelmed it. Now two consecutive dams had failed! At this point, the combined volumes of the heavy rainfall, the contents of Wixom Lake, and the contents of Sanford Lake all barreled towards the small city of Midland.
Luckily, there had been engineers monitoring the state of the Edenville dam during the storms. Having failed the inspection, the dam was not to be trusted. At the point that it became likely that the Edenville dam would fail, warnings were issued and the residents of Midland were evacuated. Shortly after the final evacuations were complete, Edenville Dam washed away, with Sanford Dam falling soon after. The town of Midland was soon under nine feet of water.
Now, in the places where Lake Wixom and Lake Sanford used to delight boaters and the homeowners who lived on the banks, gigantic, reeking mud flats stretch to the horizon. Erosion is a huge concern to property owners, as these lakeside structures are now in danger of sliding into the muck. Litigations have already commenced, but restitution and insurance money is a long way off. The community is coming together as much as possible to assist those affected by the flooding, but that group includes almost all of Midland. One thing is certain: the amount of money needed to restore Midland and the two destroyed dams- to say nothing of the loss of hydro power the dams had been producing- is far greater than the amount of investment it would have taken to prevent this disaster.
Image: A summary infographic showing hurricane season probability and numbers of named storms predicted from NOAA's 2020 Atlantic Hurricane Season Outlook.
The 2020 Atlantic Hurricane Season officially begins on June 1st, and all those who were hoping to be spared extra worry, inconvenience, and expense will most likely be disappointed. As if the year 2020 is not bad enough already, the hurricane season is likely to add to our troubles. As early predictions roll in, it appears that this year will be worse than average; with 14-18 named tropical storms deemed likely. Of those, seven to nine are expected to become hurricanes, and of those hurricanes, four to five are likely to become major storms. The chances that a major hurricane will make landfall in the US is deemed to be 69%- well above the threat level that existed at this time last year. In short, an above-average hurricane season is approaching, during a year when a global pandemic is already making life very difficult.
In the event of a major hurricane, the current pandemic situation will make every step that much harder. Evacuation, sheltering with others in close quarters, rescue operations, hospitalization for injuries, obtaining food, water and clothing, and the fact that so many families are already on the brink of financial ruin- all these factors will greatly complicate the response to a major natural disaster. In addition to these issues, it may be that funding from FEMA, or assistance from the National Guard, the military, or the Army Corps of Engineers will be complicated by the fact that these resources are already stretched to the breaking point in response to pandemic issues. No year is a ‘good’ year to suffer through a hurricane, but the year 2020 has sapped resources and funding like no other in the past century.
Because of the current pandemic and other unique challenges that will continue to impact our lives this summer, experts are urging everyone who lives in a potential hurricane zone to work on preparing a plan now, well before the plan is needed. Without preparation, coastal residents are risking disaster more dire than they have ever dreamed possible. Many of the very people who are most susceptible to COVID-19 are also very vulnerable to the hazards presented by a hurricane: nursing home residents, indigent or homeless persons, and immobile, house-bound individuals are all at extreme risk during any type of natural disaster. And even if these individuals can be safely evacuated, they are then likely to be housed in cramped and crowded quarters- an environment that is conducive to the rapid spread the COVID-19 virus.
Even now, before the official start of the hurricane season; emergency funds, non-profit agencies, and local relief efforts are already stretched to the snapping point. Many millions of people have lost their jobs, businesses, and shelter. State and Federal agencies are already unable to cope with the unprecedented level of need: for emergency housing assistance, food stamps, health care needs, child care options, and many other services that have never before been under this type of severe pressure. Adding a major hurricane disaster response to this already precarious social services safety net may collapse the entire system. For this reason, experts are issuing a stark warning as the 2020 hurricane season approaches: Be Prepared!
Photo: AUGUSTA, Ga. – Divers with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Savannah District plunge into the Savannah River to inspect the New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam, May 13, 2014. This was the first dive inspection performed on the aging structure since 1999. The divers assessed continuing erosion under the riverside lock wall, which has exposed supporting timber piles making them vulnerable to water damage and decay. USACE photo by Scott Hyatt.
During the 1950’s and 60’s the U.S. enjoyed a period of massive federal investment in the nation’s infrastructure. Bridges, roads, railways, and other transportation and energy-related systems were built or improved, and as a side benefit this investment created tens of thousands of jobs. The large expenditures on infrastructure, although difficult at the time, led to the very prosperous and economically stable decades that followed. In large part, this is because businesses were able to move goods and services via the best transportation system on the planet, and also because so many citizens had well-paying jobs connected to the public projects. The forward-thinking government that made the difficult appropriations necessary to build the infrastructure of this country also built the largest economy in the world.
Fast-forward many decades, and the U.S. economy is still coasting on those long-ago investments and sacrifices. During the 1960’s, which was the heyday of investment in infrastructure, the amount allocated from federal grants for infrastructural projects was close to 6% of the U.S. GDP. Today this investment rate hovers at around 3% of GDP. This means that while the demands upon our transportation and energy grid infrastructure has vastly increased, spending on these systems has been cut in half. Spending on infrastructure, while extremely critical to the nation and to the economy, is just not exciting or rewarding to the careers of the Congresspeople and Senators who must work to appropriate the funds. As Congress has grown ever more divided and partisan, the boring and un-newsworthy infrastructure investment has languished.
This neglect is not only a figurative ticking time bomb for the economy, but is also a literal life-and-death matter for many U.S. citizens who drive across crumbling bridges, transport goods through declining underwater tunnels, and live downstream from aging dams. While all of these issues are critically important, it is the aging dam issue that we will consider today.
Dams have been in use in the U.S. since the very first human inhabitants arrived. Native Americans made use of natural beaver dams to aid with agriculture, and soon began to construct their own. Dams have been used to power mills for thousands of years, and in the late 1800’s the first hydroelectric dams went into service in England and the U.S., very soon after humans learned to harness electricity. There was a rush to build hydroelectric dams, and this new method of energy production seemed limitless and thrilling. Funds were allocated enthusiastically for this novel and hugely useful new technology. Perhaps the culmination of this great dam-building age was the breathtaking feat of engineering called the Hoover Dam.
Today, however, we take all these elderly dams for granted. In the U.S. today, there are countless small dams that have been blocking flowing water for over a century. One hundred (or more) years of water flowing over packed earth, fitted stone, or even the strongest concrete structure can inflict a lot of damage. The great enthusiasm for building the newfangled hydroelectric projects gave way to a much more subdued interest in maintaining the dams. Now, the U.S. faces a looming crisis of decrepit dams that may lack the integrity to withstand the increased pressures that are arising from climate change.
Those responsible for inspecting the nation’s dams have been sounding the alarm for decades, only to be ignored. However, as climate change brings heavier and more frequent storms, community leaders have been forced to pay attention to the floods that occur with ever-increasing frequency. Today it has become so common for dams to be breached during storms that many homeowners are forced to invest heavily in flood mitigation measures such as extensive landscaping, flood barriers, fortified sump pumps, and even elevation of the entire structure. But even this is not the worst of the matter. Many people who live downstream from crumbling dams have much more to fear than flooded basements and blocked roadways. If a dam fails suddenly, all those below the dam are at extreme risk of losing their very lives!
Image: Miami tidal flooding, October 13, 2016.
The city of Miami-Dade has now joined its close neighbor, Miami Beach, in declaring a climate change state of emergency. In recent years, a dramatic increase in the frequency and duration of ‘sunny day floods’ has meant that flooding can appear suddenly, without warning, and in the absence of storms or king tides. On any given day, it is possible for residents to encounter flooded areas that can cause hazards for transportation, damage buildings and homes, or even completely block motorways. Because of this new and gathering threat, activists have pressured local government to officially declare a state of emergency in order to make funds available to combat the threat.
The city of Miami has set aside a fund of $192 million to fight the effects of climate change, but this amount is not nearly enough to implement the drastic solutions that will be necessary to protect this highly vulnerable city. As dire as the situation may be in Miami, the city of Miami Beach is facing an even greater threat, because Miami Beach is built upon an artificial foundation comprised mostly of sand. Together, the cities of Miami and Miami Beach will need hundreds of millions of dollars in order to survive through the end of this century. For this reason, both municipalities are requesting matching funds from State and Federal coffers in order to supplement the funds that have already been earmarked for this challenge. The future looks uncertain for the entire Florida peninsula unless massive flood mitigation projects can be implemented in a timely manner.
Luckily, new technologies have become available that can greatly help with the fight against climate change. In particular, drones have proven their usefulness in many ways. Drones have been deployed regularly to monitor king tides and to detect the frequent ‘sunny day floods’ that pop up in various parts of the city. Drones can be extremely useful when counting wildlife populations-without disturbing the animals, detecting areas of erosion or tidal incursion along the coastline- without putting human observers at risk, and for surveying remote and inhospitable areas- without expensive manpower and equipment. Underwater drones can collect sediment samples, survey conditions on the sea floor, and record measurements of currents and wave action. This single advancement has made an enormous contribution to the fight against climate-related devastation.
In addition to the use of drones, the city of Miami employs many other defenses in its fight against the sea. One solution is to design and implement urban reservoirs throughout the city. These reservoirs are intended to capture and absorb water during flood, rather than to allow the water to impede into areas of human habitation or into valuable business zones. Another recent development is the use of special one-way anti-tidal valves that prevent sea water from entering urban zones while still allowing fresh floodwater to drain out through the valves.
One hopeful development is political rather than technological. The current mayor of Miami-Dade, Francis Suarez, believes that the threat posed by climate change has evolved into a non-partisan issue that is shared by all, regardless of political affiliation. Mayor Suarez, a Republican, says, "I think why people are unifying on the partisan landscape is we're focusing on the issues that we see, we see the flooding, we see the wildfires in California, we see the mega hurricanes like Dorian which put the Bahamas under 20 feet of water and killed thousands of people, so we're dealing with the climatic events that we see, we can't ignore them," As studies indicate that every dollar spent on prevention saves at least seven dollars of post-flooding clean-up, it makes sense that people from every political viewpoint should unite in this battle to save Miami from the results of climate change.
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