The threat of a direct hit by Hurricane Joaquin prompted communities along the U.S. Eastern Seaboard from Florida to Maine to prepare for the worst last weekend. While in most places the worst didn’t occur, many locations experienced coastal flooding, and in some areas record-breaking rainfall from a confluence of weather systems, including Joaquin. In South Carolina, the area around the capital city of Columbia saw more than 20 inches of rain over the weekend. Governor Nikki Haley and many meteorologists called it a thousand-year event.
The impacts of these weather events were dire: more than a dozen deaths in South Carolina, submerged cars, broken dams, washed-out roads and bridges, undrinkable water and thousands of homes without electricity. And South Carolina wasn’t alone; seven Eastern states saw severe damage from coastal flooding.
Whether this was a thousand-year event or a preview of more frequent extreme rainfall that has been projected as the climate changes, inland and coastal communities recognize the need to prepare for rising seas and increasingly wild weather. Later this month, elected local officials from across the U.S. political spectrum will meet to underline the message that this is likely to become a more frequent occurrence with dangerous consequences for coastal communities, where sea level rise is an ongoing, serious challenge. Mayors from Florida to Alaska and from Maine to Texas are gathering in New Hampshire on October 23-25 to discuss the best ways to help their communities deal with rising seas, recurring coastal floods and the need for more leadership and support at the state and national level to help cities and towns grapple with resource needs, build more resilient cities and prepare for future flooding.
The Climate Change Connection
A changing climate with warmer temperatures means the atmosphere can hold more moisture, increasing the potential for extreme rainfall events. Every region in the continental United States has experienced an increase in heavy precipitation events in the last 50 years, especially in the Northeast, where the increase was 71 percent, and in the Southeast, which saw a 27 percent increase. Extreme precipitation events like the one in South Carolina are consistent with what we know about climate change.
We also know that as the atmosphere and oceans heat up, the sea level rises, amplifying high tides and storm surges that can make damaging coastal impacts more likely. So in addition to calling for more resources to cope with future severe storms and floods, coastal leaders at the summit will also discuss ways to decrease their carbon footprint to prevent the worst impacts later this century and ensure more safety for coming generations.
Bipartisanship Is Alive and Well at the Local Level
The gathering of local leaders is poles apart from the partisan gridlock that often paralyzes government in Washington. This truly bipartisan group of dozens of elected community officials will join together to discuss their concerns about increased risk to their citizens and the root causes of the problem. Set in New Hampshire in the run-up to presidential primaries season, the event will highlight this issue as one that White House contenders should address. Presidential candidates, especially those from coastal states including Florida, Texas and New York, should be asked about their communities’ increasing vulnerability to the impact of sea level rise.
Local leaders of coastal communities are looking for solutions. As one elected official attending the summit put it, “The water doesn’t care if you are Democrat or a Republican, and if you live here, you know that the sea level is rising and things are rapidly changing.” A Florida official who will attend the gathering said, “We are at ground zero. We do not have the luxury of debating whether reality is happening or not. Pretending this isn’t happening isn’t an option.”
After the tragic of loss of life and enormous economic damage caused by the recent rain and flooding in North and South Carolina and coastal flooding along the East Coast, it is encouraging that a bipartisan group of elected officials from across the country are gathering to focus attention on this issue. Stay tuned.