The Flood Washes over us

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Written by Jody Tishmack

Originally posted on Resilience.org

A year ago I wrote an article discussing Hurricane Harvey.  Here we are again watching another 1 in a 1,000 year hurricane disaster unfold.  I won’t try to summarize all the other weather disasters that have been unfolding around the world this year.  This year is going to be the fourth warmest year on record behind 2016, 2015, and 2017 respectively.  Our global climate is obviously in chaos and weather disasters becoming more frequent and severe.

In the days leading up to Hurricane Florence’s landfall meteorologists struggled to find words to describe this storm’s unbelievable potential for destruction.  The storm was “biblical”, “unprecedented”, “historical”, “a monster”…yet none of the words really conveyed the reality of risk that few have yet faced.   Governors of both Carolinas took the warnings seriously and called for evacuation.  Many heeded their warnings but the fact that some people chose to stay and ride out the storm showed a dangerous lack of understanding for the danger they faced.  The media’s obsession for making storm disasters into morbid entertainment was in full form when one reporter struggled to stand against wind that seemingly had little affect on nearby pedestrians strolling by.  Like passing a highway accident we can’t seem to turn our eyes away.

The fact that Florence didn’t inflict greater wind damage when it made landfall was a fortunate break that had to do with the storm weakening after its final eyewall replacement cycle.  By Thursday evening September 13th hurricane reconnaissance indicated that a new eyewall was not likely to be completed; the eastern section of the wall not likely to reform.  This prevented Florence from rebuilding the strength of its winds and the storm continued to weaken as it lumbered towards landfall.  Instead of a Category 4 hurricane, Florence came ashore a Category 1 hurricane with sustained winds of 90 mph versus 140 or higher.

Can you imagine the damage if this storm had been similar to last year’s Maria,  a Category 4 hurricane that dropped to Category 3 as it traveled 100 miles diagonally across Puerto Rico in 8 hours.  What if Florence had completed its eyewall and turned back into a Category 4 hurricane creeping slowly along the Carolina shoreline?  Hurricane Florence crawled across 200 miles in 72 hours dumping “unprecedented” amounts of rain on top of ground saturated from a long,  “record breaking” amount of precipitation this spring and summer.  The wind damage of a stronger storm would have been an order of magnitude greater, totally flattening buildings, infrastructure, and vegetation as it moved slowly inland.  Can you imagine the devastation in addition to the catastrophic flooding that is currently unfolding?  We are still days and weeks away from knowing the full extent of flood damage.

It seems we are constantly witnessing “unprecedented” violent storms, “historic” record-breaking summer heat waves,  “ferocious” winter snowstorms,  “never-before-seen” wildfires,  and “torrential” rainfall that results in a “deluge” of flooding.  We use adjectives that try to impart our sense that storms are bigger, stronger, or greater, yet after too frequent use they seem to lose their value.  We don’t seem to realize the magnitude of what is happening or the danger.  Does a “never-seen-before ” event that happens every few years really mean something to us?  Does a “1 in a 1,000 year” event that happens twice in two years become a warning of something different happening?  Perhaps we are becoming numb to the reality of our climate changing.

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