The 9 inches of rain that usually fall during a stretch of a few months in Manhattan, Kansas, came down last week in just a few hours. Wildcat Creek crested nearly 26 feet above the stream bed, and 300 people had to be evacuated, about half of them by boat.
The disaster definitely qualified as a 500-year flood — a watery washout that has a 1-in-500 chance of occurring in any given year.
Only, we know that such severe weather events are becoming much more common all over the world: Last year’s Hurricane Harvey was the third 500-year flood in the Houston area in three years. Ellicott City, Maryland, had two of those in three years, most recently in May. This summer, there were 500-year floods in Arizona, West Virginia and Wisconsin. In February, completely out of season, South Bend, Indiana, took its turn.
And while it’s never possible to draw a straight line between any one of them and global climate change, anyone who doubts that’s what we’re seeing in fires, floods, extinctions and outbreaks should check out the melting polar ice, the shrinking permafrost and the 7 million acres of land in this country that have burned in wildfires so far this year. Or, just check your electric bill.
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Because while we sprint away from public policies designed to mitigate damage — not based on future projections but changes that are already here — we’re already paying the tab for pretending that isn’t what’s happening.
At this year’s annual meeting of the American Meteorological Society, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association announced record-breaking economic losses from weather-related disasters in 2017. Those are easier to measure than the damage to human health, but almost 3,000 people died just in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.
Sixteen of last year’s disasters each caused more than $1 billion in damages. Together, they cost $306 billion, which beat the previous record by more than $100 billion. Wildfires out West cost triple the previous record, or $18 billion. And as the flooding in Kansas this week should remind us, this is a local problem, too.
A “disruption index” from the Weather Channel on the American cities likely to be hardest hit by climate change put Kansas City fifth, just behind New York and ahead of Boston: “No risk from sea-level rise in this city in the middle of the country,’’ the assessment said. “What’s in play, though, is heat in the form of urban heat islands and extreme drought. The city will see 20 more days above 90 degrees than its rural counterparts, according to Climate Central, plus more drought in the coming years ... Heavy rains are occurring about twice as frequently as they did a century ago, increasing the risk of flooding.“
Sound familiar? Welcome to the urban heat island.
A recent notice from Kansas City Power & Light said that this summer’s skyrocketing electric bills are due in part to the fact that “our region has experienced more than 50 days of 90-plus-degree heat this year — more than double the number to date in 2017.”
Why? Heat-trapping pollution. So why again are we relaxing federal environmental regulations and fuel efficiency standards? Why are we trying to make it easier for industry to pollute, and propping up the coal industry?
The safety risk to low-income and elderly Americans who can’t afford to pay skyrocketing electric bills is only going to grow along with the heat: “The lack of a carbon policy means these things will get worse, not better,” says Ashok Gupta, of the National Resources Defense Council, who counsels that individuals can “at least be prepared in terms of managing your energy consumption and insulating, so you’re not losing half of your air-conditioning.”
A few more billion-dollar, 500-year events, and we might even consider electing officials who’ll stop ignoring the obvious.