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How do we mitigate flooding like Florence?

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To say that Hurricane Florence was bad would be the understatement of the century. Like most other people, my heart breaks to see so many suffer such incredible loss and tragedy, and it also fills with warmth at the outpouring of love and support from people across the state and the country. Disasters have a way of bringing people together and bringing out the best in good people.

sat image

NASA: Satellite image of Hurricane Florence just before noon on September 12, 2018.

If you’ve kept up with my Facebook posts or those of other meteorologists over the past 2 weeks, you know we did what we could to describe how much rain was possible from the molasses-in-the-Arctic-paced storm. Unfortunately, some people have trouble visualizing that much water or even believing it could happen again so soon after Hurricane Matthew inundated much of the same parts of the state. I’m not here to judge those who didn’t evacuate. I get it. I may not have made the same choice, but I get it.

While other people are debating the need for a better way to rate hurricanes, whether people took the warnings seriously, which viral photos were fake news, and the best way to get help to those in dire need right now (grassroots organizations or government bureaucracies), I want to focus on how to mitigate future disasters like Florence and Matthew. Some may think it’s too soon, but often, the best time to prepare for the next disaster is right after the last one.

What lessons can we learn from Matthew and Florence here in North Carolina, especially in the areas that suffered/are suffering severe flooding from both storms? What lessons can we learn from other regions that have suffered similar flooding like Houston did with Harvey? How do we lessen the impact of the next intense rain-maker of a tropical system?

There are some seemingly obvious answers to these questions such as improve dams and levees that breeched during the days-long rain, but those tasks only go so far against one to three feet of rain over the course of a few days. As creeks and rivers rise, the water is going to go where it wants to go, and we have to figure out how best to deal with it.

So, what do we know about where the water will go? Gravity takes water downhill, which is why low-lying areas tend to flood first. Streams also have a preferred route. Even when humans try to engineer a new route, stories tell of the rising water returning to its natural path, often resulting in flooding of the same area the engineers said wouldn’t flood again.

Owners of homes and businesses existing in a flood plain can and should buy flood insurance. If you live in a floodplain and have a mortgage, most likely your lender required you to buy flood insurance. If it isn’t a requirement, it’s still a good investment. However, the National Flood Insurance Program is being called insolvent by some. Storms with financially high costs such as Harvey have caused FEMA to borrow funds from the U.S. Treasury to pay out claims. According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, “As of February 2018, FEMA’s debt stood at $20.5 billion.” Translation: the tax payers are going to pay for what the premiums can’t cover.

Raising National Flood Insurance Program premiums could help cover those costs, but it would prove detrimental to many of the people who live in floodplains. Often those people are on the lower-income side of the economic spectrum.

In an article published last week, Bloomberg described how Charlotte and Mecklenburg County in North Carolina are handling the potentially recurring costs of rebuilding after each flood. To summarize, they have been buying up properties that flood repeatedly, or are likely to flood, at fair prices as the funds are available. Once purchased, they demolish the buildings and do not allow development on that land. With that tactic, they are helping those sellers escape places they might not otherwise be able to sell because their potential for flooding is well known.

Flooded cars are another concern and one that can be easy to avoid by moving them to higher ground. During the weekend of Florence’s rainfall, the City of Raleigh opened the city-owned downtown parking decks for residents who live in low-lying areas to temporarily store their cars without a fee. It was a practical way to give people an option and a little peace of mind with regard to the security of their vehicles.

In the Netherlands, they have designed dikes, levees, walls and giant floodgates to hold back the sea, and many people point to their grand-scale technology as the perfect example of how to deal with rising sea level and coastal storms. Still, no solution is perfect, and trade-offs are necessary. While their floodgates and walls do their job, ecologists see problems such as toxic algal blooms arising from limiting the natural ebb and flow in the wetlands and bays behind those walls.

There are many other ways to mitigate flood risks including restoring wetlands in coastal areas, building floodways to relieve pressure on levees, restoring rivers to their natural channels, and raising the structural elevation of buildings. Public and private entities – towns and homeowners alike – need to do their own cost-benefit analyses to decide what works best for them. In the case of towns and cities, political support of the best plan is necessary since taxes will most likely – at least in part – be used to pay for it.


Note: I’ve included multiple hyperlinks in this post because some may want more information than I have space/time to include on the ideas listed.

Weather Blog

Be a good scientist.

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From the “things you won’t see on tonight’s six o’clock news” category… Storms don’t have to be worse for their damage to be worse.

In a recently posted article to the American Meteorological Society’s journals section of its website titled “Continental United States Hurricane Landfall Frequency and Associated Damage: Observations and Future Risks,” study authors Philip J. Klotzbach, Steven G. Bowen, Roger Pielke, Jr., and Michael Bell scrutinized past hurricanes and came to what some people may claim is a surprising conclusion:

“While United States landfalling hurricane frequency or intensity shows no significant trend since 1900, growth in coastal population and wealth have led to increasing hurricane-related damage along the United States coastline.”

In other words, there is no trend that storms are getting bigger, worse, or more frequent despite what you might have heard on TV or read on social media.

Harvey image

Credits: NASA/NOAA GOES Project

Some people might claim that at least one of the authors (Pielke, Jr.) should be discredited since, in the past, people who have disagreed with him have attempted to besmirch his reputation by calling him a “climate denier.”

Personally, I think it’s a positive step forward that the AMS is publishing their paper and has released a preliminary version on its site.

I sit on the sidelines of the battle over whether man-made climate change is “settled science.” I read studies and articles from both sides. I think critically about what I read, and I don’t take anything at face value. I ask questions and look for answers down rabbit holes. I also pay attention to the unfortunate fallout – when credible scientists suffer public smear campaigns and career-path roadblocks – all because they are not willing to submit to the so-called consensus and continue to do research that shows that the science isn’t settled.

Science should never be settled. If it were, the earth would still be flat. The sun would revolve around us. There would be nothing smaller than an atom. Gravity would be some god’s way of holding us down… Okay. Maybe that last one was more myth than science, but you get my point.

I’ve written before about how politicizing science causes more damage than good. It causes outsiders to distrust science as a whole, especially when the in-fighting among academics and popular scientists that have suddenly become TV personalities play out on twitter and national media networks. How can you be in search of truth and knowledge if you dismiss anyone who disagrees with what you think you know?

To be a good scientist is to have an open-mind and be willing to entertain more ideas than just the popular ones. A good scientist isn’t gullible or naïve. A good scientist is thoughtful, asks questions, and earnestly searches for answers – even if those answers disprove his own hypotheses. My challenge to all scientists is to strive to be good scientists.

Weather Blog


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“If” is the biggest word in the English language, or so I’ve been told.

If I controlled the weather, we would still have tropical cyclones because they are an important part of the global system that encompasses weather, climate, ecology, and environment. Often, years without tropical systems end in drought. However, if I controlled the weather, Harvey would not have played out this way.

Harvey's forecast track

The National Hurricane Center’s forecast track for what’s left of Tropical Storm Harvey.

If I controlled urban development, we would not have cities built on barrier islands, or in flood zones, or in areas prone to annual wildfires… or in California now that I think of it. Yep. California would be one gigantic National Park. No urban centers allowed.

If I controlled human behavior, everyone would be patient, kind, and logical. People would understand just how complicated the world is and would find ways to reason out the best possible solutions to our problems without making more of a mess despite (or by way of) the best of intentions.

Are you rolling your eyes yet? I am.

If is a great playground for the mind, but if does not deal well with reality in this case.

Harvey is bad. Urban development in places like Houston exacerbates flooding potential. When things get bad, human emotions get riled, and many people have their own way of dealing with bad situations – not all of which are inherently bad themselves, but many of which are less than constructive.

I could write about how Harvey is breaking official records, but we’re still awaiting verified, quality-assured data. I could write about how my heart breaks for those affected by Harvey, but if you’re as human as the next guy, your heart is right there with mine. I could write about how to make charitable donations to help with recovery, but I know the rest of the media has that covered. (I chose the Red Cross, personally.)

Instead, I’ll just say that when the waters recede, the national media leaves, and those people who can return home to start picking up the pieces do… that’s when we will have time to head back to the playground called If and see what imagination, ingenuity, and logic can do to help us mitigate future potential disasters like this one.