From Florida’s sea-battered coast to small mountain communities in landlocked Kentucky, nowhere, it seems, is safe from flooding these days. Even California’s Death Valley — the arid trough in the Mojave Desert known as “the hottest place on earth” — saw record floods this year.
Flooding is, of course, nothing new. The story of human civilization is well marked by extreme weather — and extreme water — events. We’ve been “living with water” for centuries, whether in New Orleans, Amsterdam, Kolkata, Dhaka, or Jakarta. And it’s not for nothing that severe floods are often described as “biblical,” a nod to their enduring presence in human life.
But how do today’s floods differ from their predecessors and how can we prepare for and respond to them? More importantly, how can we live with them — and even thrive in their wake?
Rob Verchick, president of the Center for Progressive Reform and author of a forthcoming book on climate resilience, explored that question last month on History Behind News, a podcast that examines the historical dimensions of current events. The conversation came just before Hurricane Ian struck and flooded coastal Florida — and inundated news outlets and airwaves with stories about loss of life and untold billions in property damage.
Much of the conversation focused on Verchick’s book, The Octopus in the Parking Garage, so named for the poor cephalopod that was flushed into the garage of a luxury condominium by an unusually high tide in Miami. In his book, Verchick calls the incident an “eight-armed alarm bell” and calls on readers to adapt to our changing climate and address the damage already done — and explains what that looks like on the ground (and in the water) as he paddles through Louisiana’s bayous, hikes in the Mojave Desert, and dives off Key Largo.
To be published in advance of Earth Day, Octopus has already received a glowing review in the New Orleans Times-Picayune from Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Bob Marshall and attention from Inside Higher Ed in a piece about disaster resilience in Ian’s wake.
In his conversation with Adel Aali, a lawyer and medical entrepreneur-turned podcaster, Verchick explains that humanity has always struggled with floods, and cited such incidents as the heavy rains that deluged South Dakota’s Black Hills a half century ago, killing more than 200 people and injuring thousands. But “climate breakdown” is making matters worse. As our planet heats up, snow is melting, seas are rising, and air is warming, which makes the atmosphere capable of holding more water vapor, which in turn leads to larger cloud “bursts” — and more intense storms with more voluminous surges.
‘Mamboing on a Bubble’
Infrastructure failure — and our tendency to live where “perhaps we shouldn’t” — is also to blame, he said, citing such infamous dam failures as those in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, and near Los Angeles that killed hundreds. He also flagged the 1927 incident when the fabled Mississippi overran its banks, burst levees, and drowned hundreds, many of them people of color.
We tend to underinvest and over-rely on shared resources, Verchick told Aali. At the same time, we continue living in flood-prone areas despite increasing risk, he said — comparing the lifestyle to “mamboing on a bubble.” People are still buying and developing property in flood-risk areas, but they will stop at some point, he cautions, either because insurance or maintenance will get too expensive, and there will be severe economic consequences that will hit low-wealth people most. “Everybody knows that bubble is going to burst,” but right now, “it’s a party.”
The challenge, he said, is not whether to act — but how far to go.
The good news is that the federal government is making some investments in shared infrastructure, through new laws like the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which set aside $1.2 trillion for public transit, clean drinking water, broadband internet, and renewable energy, and the $739 billion Inflation Reduction Act, a landmark law to curb the effects of climate change.
Grassroots advocates and groups are also taking action. In Verchick’s New Orleans, the local government is supporting a massive coastal restoration project — the largest in the world, in fact — to repair damaged wetlands, a natural flood defense. The city, which was famously deluged in in 2005 during Hurricane Katrina, is also investing in “green infrastructure,” including a multi-acre rain garden designed not only for recreation but also for water absorption.
To adapt to climate change and build climate resilience, he said, we need to “start living with water instead of just fighting it all the time.”