California’s Extremes a Window on Warming World

March 16, 2023


In August 2021, a series of severe storms hit the middle of Tennessee, shattering local rainfall records. In the town of Waverly, flash floods tore homes off their foundations and killed  20 people, including 7-month-old twins swept out of their father’s arms.

“It’s just devastating, to watch your lives go away in dumpsters,” Waverly resident Christy Brewer told a reporter from local NBC affiliate WSMV

Weeks later, the remnants of Hurricane Ida swept over the same area, completing a one-two punch of wind and rainfall that helped turn Tennessee into one of 2021’s costliest US states for weather disasters.

The damage could be a sign of weather to come. “Worsening Winds,” a report released on Feb. 26 by the nonprofit First Street Foundation, points to fast-evolving impacts from hurricanes due to storms that are more powerful, more likely to hit northern latitudes, and set to linger longer, dumping rainfall further inland. 

Hurricane damage will menace an additional 13.4 million properties within the next 30 years, according to the analysis by First Street, which focuses on sharing climate risk data. Even Ed Kearns, the foundation’s chief data officer, was surprised by the extent of new risk from inland flooding the model sees in places like central Tennessee. 

By mid-century, the report predicts, the annual loss from storms across the US will increase by $1.4 billion — with $900 million of that concentrated in Florida alone. Category 5 storms in northern cities like Jacksonville will become more prevalent, with an additional 1.6 million properties exposed to the most severe storms. In the Northeast, storm damage is anticipated to rise 87%. This shifting, strengthening danger zone will have a substantial impact on insurance markets and property values.

Done in partnership with Arup, the report’s prediction of a windier, wetter future highlights the need for cities to adapt, as local governments in places that have been unfamiliar with such storm risks must swiftly update building codes and improve stormwater infrastructure.  

“How much effort do you put into physical self-protection and physical adaptation?” said Kearns. “These are the decisions that people can make if they understand where the winds are going to be.”

The First Street analysis uses a method created by MIT atmospheric scientist Kerry Emanuel that relies not just on historical data — which doesn’t factor in the full impact of future climate change scenarios — but on creating artificial hurricanes to predict future storm paths. These new damage estimates come from an analysis of roughly 50,000 synthetic storms, said Kearns. Datasets like that do exist; the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has created a document called the Precipitation Frequency Atlas that provides some rainfall estimates, and was awarded funding to update the document this past winter. But seeing that it might take years for the agency to compile and release this information, First Street decided to get this information out sooner. 

The slow pace of preparations should indeed be cause for concern, according to Rob Moore, director of the water and climate team with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “These changes are not happening nearly fast enough, nor are they happening in enough places,” Moore said. “The problem is already here. It’s not necessarily a future problem. It’s a today problem as well.”

Accurate risk models are particularly important in the US: The focus on private markets and individual risk means that cities “place a lot on making insurance work,” said Zac Taylor, a professor of urban climate finance at the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, especially since it can be very difficult to maintain political consensus around large-scale public infrastructure, growth management and managed retreat.

Since the National Flood Insurance Program, a key federal backstop for properties and communities facing flood risk, relies on outdated risk maps from FEMA and often lax local enforcement of insurance requirements, and the federal government lacks substantial authority over local zoning, planning, and land use decisions, Moore argues the US is “entirely dependent on independent action by local governments.” 

“These [FEMA] flood maps are used for local building code and zoning ordinance enforcement, and they are a primary contributor to bad development happening in dangerous places,” said Moore. 

The Biden administration did reinstate the Obama-era Federal Flood Risk Management Standard, rescinded by former President Donald Trump, which mandates federally funded infrastructure be built to a higher flood safety standard. But the new-old rules don’t cover the money being doled out by the Departments of Energy and Transportation, Moore says. Instead of putting the onus for storm recovery on insurance, he advocates for more investments in resiliency and land use, as well as efforts to place critical infrastructure like schools and sewage treatment plants in safe places.


One Response to “California’s Extremes a Window on Warming World”

  1. rhymeswithgoalie Says:

    Damn gummint regulations!

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