WNYC's Bob Hennelly is an award-winning investigative journalist. While at WNYC he has reported on a wide gamut of major public policy questions ranging from immigration and homeland security to power outages and utility mergers.
Stucknation: Hurricane Irene Damage Amplified by Decades of Bad Infrastructure Policy
Wednesday, August 31, 2011 - 10:15 PM
President Obama is coming to Paterson, NJ on Sunday to see first hand the devastation wrought by the catastrophic flooding of the Passaic river, post-Irene. Hopefully he'll see the significance of the multi-state flooding event in terms of our planetary ecological imperative - there's more at stake here than shoring up his base.
Irene was no "dodged bullet" but a shot across the bow from a planet that is serving up such events more frequently and with increasing intensity.
From North Carolina up through the upper reaches of New England, our collective plumbing failed and it killed dozens of people and will cost billions to fix. It wasn't Katrina, but it affected thirteen states and showed how totally inadequate our existing water management infrastructure is.
It also graphically illustrated how thousands of bad local landuse decisions, when hit by a storm the size of Europe, can all help produce a "natural disaster" with continental consequences.
The scope of the damage of these short-sighted landuse practices that play out at the local level have become so pernicious the results can be seen from space.
For decades in pursuit of property tax revenues and economic development we have built shopping malls in swamps, clear cut forests, and paved over farmland for box stores, while neglecting the existing infrastructure in our urban cores.
While the economic development model based on sprawl made some people extraordinarily rich, it replacing naturally regulating natural systems - swamps, meadows and farms - with a mindless repetition of stripmalls and fast food joints in state after state, leaving nowhere for the rain water to go.
"When you pave over these surfaces you are changing mother nature's pattern in a very significant way," says Eric Goldstein, senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. "Rain water and snow melt race over paved surfaces fifteen times more quickly than they would over green areas like meadows or wetlands, and that than creates an avalanche of sorts of rain water and storm water that has to go somewhere."
Can we be surprised our basement floods when we put shopping malls in our swamps?
The EPA reports that since the founding of the republic, North Carolina has filled in almost half of its wetlands, Maryland 73 percent, Delaware 54 percent, Pennsylvania 56 percent, New Jersey 39 percent, New York 60 percent, Connecticut 74 percent and even "green" Vermont destroyed 35 percent of its wetlands.
Goldstein says he believes there is a scientific consensus that we will see more Irenes as the planet continues to warm.
"Storms that would we would refer to saying, 'we haven't seen a storm like that in twenty or thirty years' - those could become a more regular events as the result of changes taking place in our climate and we have to prepare for that," Goldstein says. "We have got to plan for that and we have to invest in the infrastructure to protect out lives, our homes and our communities in the event of future severe storms."
In the 13-state swath cut by Irene the post World War II period was devastating for farmland which, like swamps and woodlands, act as the ultimate sponge for rain and snow events. Bob Wagner, the managing director at American Farmland Trust, says farms provide a lot more than food in densely populated corridors like the Mid-atlantic and Northeast.
"What we need to do as a society is build into the marketplace or through programs the value that farmers provide, which often we don't value until after it is gone," says Wagner. "People say, 'boy we never used to see the stream flood this badly or we never used to have water like this.' Well its because upstream you used to have farms and forests, and now you have developed it all."
Wagner says with a nation increasingly pinched for cash for concrete projects that control water, it's more essential than ever we see swamps, forests, and farmland as the most cost-effective water management infrastructure.
"We would miss an opportunity if after Irene passes and we have dealt with the immediate impacts of that storm to not think about what happens next - at a minimum in a regional context hopefully more in a nationally context," says Wagner.
But farmland preservation, wetland protection and reclamation won't do the job alone. Mark Rusnica, the American Society of Civil Engineers delegate for the northeast and Puerto Rico, says the U.S. has got to stop avoiding investing in critical water management infrastructure like dams and sewer plants.
He says a rain event like Irene should get Washington's attention.
"I have certainly have never seen anything like it in my lifetime, the amount of water that has been dumped on the northeast," he says. Rusnica says the scale of Irene just dwarfed exisitng water controls.
"Many of the lock systems along the Mohawk River in New York State were just about totally under water and the size of the river was three times what that lock was designed for. "
"If we continue to experience these big 500 year storms we'll have to rethink out infrastructure completely," says Rusnica.
When it comes to dealing with floods we have been doing the same things year after year. We pay for people in chronically flooded properties to re-settle in the same location over and over. Maybe, its time for us to try something new that in the long term will save us money and buy these folks out and send them to higher ground.
Can we learn these lessons or are we doomed to just keep repeating the same failed behavior? Connecting these dots are our 21st century WPA scale challenge. But just where is our Roosevelt? Maybe he will show up on Sunday.