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The extreme rainfall and flash flooding that killed at least 37 people in Eastern Kentucky this week, washing away houses and cars and turning streets into raging rivers, is one more example of how climate change is poised to overwhelm infrastructure across the United States in the years to come.
"We have dozens of bridges that are out — making it hard to get to people, making it hard to supply people with water," Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear said on Sunday. "We have entire water systems down that we are working hard to get up."
With the electricity knocked out in many areas that set rainfall records, residents who survived the flooding were left to swelter without air conditioning amid the latest heat wave to hit the area this summer.
Janey Camp, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Vanderbilt University, told Yahoo News that the combination of climate change and the nation's aging and neglected infrastructure are putting millions of people at risk of severe flooding.
“Nobody’s immune. I think Kentucky shows us that. It doesn’t matter if you’re in an urban area like Nashville or if you’re in rural Appalachia," Camp said, adding, "We’re seeing more of these intense precipitation events, where there’s a lot of water dumped on an area in a short amount of time. And the infrastructure wasn’t designed to handle that amount of precipitation."
On Monday, Vice President Kamala Harris announced that the Biden administration would make just over $1 billion in grants available for states to harden infrastructure against threats like flooding and extreme heat.
“In recent days, deadly floods have swept through Missouri and Kentucky, washing away entire neighborhoods, leaving at least 35 dead, including babies, children," Harris said of the still-rising death toll. "As has been reported, four children from one family. So, the devastation is real. The harm is real. The impact is real.”
Camp said that action, the funding of which came from the 2021 bipartisan Infrastructure Law, was overdue.
"We have a lot of aging infrastructure, especially when you think about storm water. A lot of communities don’t even have their own department for managing storm water, it kind of falls to public works or the water department," Camp said. "Only in recent years, the past decade or so, have we really started thinking more about storm water. Now we’re being hit with these extreme storm events where the stormwater infrastructure, or any infrastructure put in place to help convey water away from an area, is being exceeded.”
Climate scientists have shown that for every degree Celsius of warming, the Earth's atmosphere holds 7% more moisture. When conditions are right, that moisture can unload in the form of extreme precipitation events like the ones that dumped 12 inches of rain in Eastern Kentucky last week and another foot of rain days later in Illinois. In fact, three so-called 1,000-year rain events hit the nation's midsection in a matter of days this past week.
“It’s almost as if you need to be hit by something, unfortunately, before the community wakes up and starts doing things differently,” Camp said, adding, "We can look at trends. We can look at the down-scale climate data and say, ‘Hey, some of these things are starting to happen more.’ What we are seeing in a lot of areas, especially in the Southeast, is more precipitation. We’re starting to see these extreme weather events happen now. A lot of people want to say, ‘Well, it’s a one-in-1,000 year event, it’s an anomaly, but we’re seeing these happen more frequently.”
Cities and towns across the country are required by FEMA to formulate hazard mitigation plans, and many do so using Hazus, the department's computer tool, which is described as providing "data for estimating risk from earthquakes, floods, tsunamis, and hurricanes."
While that's a good start at assessing risk, Camp said, the problem is that many communities don't examine the worst-case models that climate change is making much more commonplace.
“In all reality, nobody’s running a 1,000-year event in their analysis. They’re running a 100-year event and maybe a 500-year event, to check the box and meet FEMA regulations for their hazard mitigation plan," Camp said. “We need to quit looking at the past and start looking to the future. And that’s challenging in a lot of communities, because they don’t have a lot of resources or expertise to do that.”
Indeed, communities like the ones ravaged in Appalachia didn't have the budget to upgrade infrastructure to meet the threat of climate change. But if the Biden administration's allocation of $1 billion in grant funding for infrastructure upgrades sounds like too much money, experts say far more money will be needed. As if to bolster that point, initial damage estimates for the recent flooding in Kentucky have been quoted at $1 billion.