What Will It Take To Take It Seriously

Sep 14, 2021

On August 17th, flash floods caused by the remnants of Tropical Storm Fred left six people dead in Haywood County, and devastated homes and businesses there and in neighboring Buncombe and Transylvania Counties.  While the analysis is ongoing of what caused such rapid and destructive flooding in these tight spaces, one reason is inescapable - climate change.

Dr. Rob Young is the head of Western Carolina University's Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines.  The international expert on climate change and its evolving impacts wrote an op-ed for the New York Times after Hurricanes Fred and Ida devastated the Southeastern U.S. and elsewhere.  He talked with BPR's Matt Bush via Zoom about what the damage those two storms showed about the U.S. - and what to him will be a sign that Americans and their government are taking climate change seriously.

This interview will be part of a new episode of The Porch, the BPR news team's monthly podcast, which will focus entirely on the flooding from August and its aftermath.  It premieres Friday September 17th at 9 a.m. on Blue Ridge Public Radio.  

Matt Bush:  When you saw these two hurricanes come through in the last month, Hurricane Fred and Hurricane Ida, as they came through the Southeast and went to other parts of the country and wreaked hundreds of millions of dollars in damages in both instances, what were your immediate takeaways from what you saw what happened?

Rob Young:  Particularly with what we saw with Hurricane Ida stretching with an impact stretching from Louisiana, all up all the way up into the Northeastern U.S., is the state of Louisiana spent more than $20 billion over the last decade, building coastal protection and doing it in a very well-organized way, investing in science and engineering, investing in building barrier islands and levies and marshes and seawalls, and doing so with process that prioritizes the spending based on science and local needs. And still we have a storm that caused billions of dollars of damage in Louisiana and has ended again in affecting the lives of hundreds, of thousands of people.  I think that ultimately the take home message is that no matter how much money we spend on flood resilience and coastal resilience, trying to protect people from storms, you can't protect everything from every storm.  And if you are in a vulnerable coastal area, perfect resilience is really unattainable.  The only way that we can ultimately reduce the vulnerability of people who are living in dangerous places is to solve climate change,  because it's a moving target in Louisiana. You know, as I said, they've spent $20 billion. They plan to spend more than $20 billion more, but sea level continues to rise on the coast of Louisiana at a rate faster than anywhere else in the United States. And our hurricanes are becoming supercharged by climate change, supercharged by warm bodies of water, and warmer air masses that can hold more water.  The only way I think, ultimately over the long run to slow down the rate of impact and the level of the disasters that we're seeing is to get a lot more serious than we have been about fixing climate change.

MB:  Is there anywhere in the Southeast, including where we are in Western North Carolina, is there anywhere in the Southeastern United States that is immune from (being affected by natural disasters)?  

RY:  I guess the practical answer to your question is no, but there are degrees of exposure and vulnerability, right?  We have here in North Carolina just a few weeks ago, we experienced, the wrath of precipitation that caused a significant amount of damage in Haywood County.  But it still pales in comparison to the destruction a land falling hurricane makes on a low, long coastal regions, where we're talking about tens of billions of dollars of damage to thousands or tens of thousands of individual properties.  Anybody can get caught unaware by, storms, flooding, large precipitation events here in the mountains.  A lot of our flooding is driven by tropical systems that come up here and drop significant amounts of rainfall in a very short period of time. But the coastal areas are of course, particularly vulnerable in the scale of the impact in places like Eastern North Carolina, compared to Western North Carolina, it was just a completely different scale.

MB:  What has your research shown over the past decade or so?  We usually during every hurricane season, and what has your research shown as the last decade has gone on, and as climate change has gotten worse - what impact is that having on the shorelines in North Carolina and in the Southeast?

RY:  I think the biggest take home message is that unfortunately, even though we know by and large where the vulnerable coastal areas are...you know as scientists, we have a very good understanding of the places in this country, and the places in North Carolina that are at risk from flooding.  The problem is we still keep putting infrastructure in those places. So you can have all the best science in the world that tells you where people are going to be in trouble. But if we don't act on that information in a sensible way, then at the end of the day, it doesn't really matter. And, you know, the fastest growing counties and municipalities in the country are still largely in the coastal zone, places like Charleston, South Carolina, and Wilmington, North Carolina area.  Everybody's flocking to those places.  And so, the frustrating part I guess of our mission here at the program is to try and communicate this risk and exposure to the general public. And a lot of people just don't seem to be listening. And then we're surprised when you combine rising sea level with supercharged hurricanes, and increasing damage and displacement of people and interruption of lives. Well first we should stop doing the wrong thing. And, and then when we start doing the right thing, it will make a difference.

MB:  You did do some research after what happened a month ago in Western North Carolina.  What were you looking at and what did you find? 

RY:  Primarily we were interested in trying to determine whether we could have done a better job of getting folks out of harm's way. And when we we look at the storm hydrographs - the flood levels for the East and West forks of the Pigeon River and areas downstream, it was really just mind-boggling how quickly that water rose, especially in the east fork of the pigeon.  It was really like a giant wave or tsunami that came down that valley in the water level went up very quickly and came back down very quickly. I mean, we're talking about around two hours or so.  Those kinds of events were very difficult to predict when a storms sits up high up on the divide,  in this case over around where the Blue Ridge Parkway comes across, there are multiple watersheds where that rain is falling in.  And even if you had water little gauges that were perfect and went all the way up the river to the top of that divide, you still might have only gained yourself 30 or 45 minutes of warning.  It just happens so quickly. And then you put on top of that, the fact that the folks that were the most vulnerable are in an area that doesn't have great cell phone service if it's got cell service at all, a lot of these folks are probably not sitting there with high-speed internet on their computers, waiting to get notice from you.  It's just a really difficult situation to initiate successful evacuations in such a short period of time. And I know when something like this happens, we all always want to try and find out who was at fault or where did we drop the ball.  But sometimes nature just overwhelms us and the cost to try and to be prepared for something like this in the future would be immense because we would have to instrument every single little watershed in Western North Carolina.  I'm just not sure that we're going to get to that. And even if we did, we wouldn't have gained hours of warning for an event like this and an area that would be very complicated to reach out to people.  So at the end of the day, the best solution to make sure this doesn't happen again, is to make sure that vulnerable individuals are not in a structure that is not flood resistant in a place that is exposed to flooding. And, you know, that's not necessarily the answer that everybody wants to hear because a lot of folks typically want to go back where they live, where they grew up, where they've always been.  

MB:  (It was) the tributaries to the main rivers in the area that caused the flooding a month ago.  Why are they so susceptible to climate change in these more powerful storms causing these problems

RY:  Typically those are the areas that we don't have to worry about quite as much because the flooding that we're accustomed to is happening downstream where they all come together. But if you get a tremendous amount of precipitation that occurs very rapidly in one little watershed - this precipitation in Haywood County was a perfect example of how we can have that kind of flood where we've never experienced before. And the role that climate change plays is  a little bit difficult to pin down.  Climate change is going to lead to an increase in the number of events like this simply because warmer air can hold a lot more water, not just a little bit more water, but on average over time can hold a lot more water. And so we're going to see rainfall go up.  

MB:  You said until we start taking this seriously, this will continue. So to you, what is taking this seriously in practice?  What will it be when Rob Young says, 'Yes, we're taking this seriously now?'

RY:  That's a really big and complicated question.  I'll put it this way...I've spent my career priding myself on the fact that I can work with people on any side of the political spectrum.  I've been appointed to advise both Democratic and Republican administrations to work on issues related to coastal hazards and flooding and climate change.  And I spent a lot of that time working on what scientists call adaptation, which is getting ready to adapt to flooding.  Adaptation is convenient when you're working in the world of politics, because you're not putting the blame for that flooding on anything. You're just recognizing that there's flood exposure and we need to do something about it.  What I'm coming to realize is that no matter how much money we spend, we can't adapt our way out of coastal hazards or flood hazards.

You know, ultimately what we really need to do is solve the big elephant in the room, which is changing climate. And quite simply that means we have to change what we're putting in the atmosphere. It's not just about what we put on the ground, sea walls and buildings and things like that. It's about what we put in the air. And if we have any hope of reducing our hazards in the future, maintaining the coastal economy of Eastern North Carolina and the rest of the U.S., we have to get very serious about how we move away from fossil fuels towards clean energy. 

I like to end on a positive note. I will say that that is in fact happening and it's happening without the government playing a gigantic role. I mean, everyone who's up in arms about the Green New Deal - it's happening without Congress even getting involved.  I drove with my family out to New Mexico last summer, and we crossed the Texas panhandle. There were more windmills than there were oil rigs.  Clean energy is coming.  The sooner that we all embrace it, the better.