For North Carolina, and for the Rest of Us, the Danger Is Rain

People look on at the the Cape Fear river as it crest from the rains caused by Hurricane Florence as it passed through the area on September 18, 2018 in Fayetteville, North Carolina. The area was inundated with rain that caused concern for large scale flooding in the North Carolina and South Carolina area.  (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
People look on at the the Cape Fear river as it crest from the rains caused by Hurricane Florence in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

For Americans who want to move with the warming planet in mind, Madison, Wisconsin seems like a good bet. The state capital is small and not too hot, with an average amount of rainfall, and at virtually no risk from forest fires, sea level rise, or hurricanes. When Vivek Shandas, a planning professor at Portland State University, talked to Business Insider last year about the U.S. cities in the best position to weather the impacts of climate change, he had Madison on his shortlist.

At the end of August, a series of storms made southern Wisconsin momentarily the wettest place in the United States. Flooding caused an estimated $100 million in damage in Dane County, prompting Gov. Scott Walker to declare a state of emergency. In Madison, which is on an isthmus between two lakes, lake water surged to record highs, flooding streets, houses, and funnily enough, the basement of the University of Wisconsin’s Center for Limnology—the study of inland lakes and rivers. The National Weather Service in Sullivan, Wisconsin, estimates that one particularly bad day set the all-time record for rain in the state (though they are still seeking proof).

Two weeks later, Hurricane Lane dropped more than 50 inches of rain on the Big Island of Hawaii, another state record. Two weeks after that, Hurricane Florence has smashed the all-time rainfall record on the entire East Coast north of Florida, not to mention the Carolinas. All of it comes a year after Hurricane Harvey dropped an astounding 64.58 inches of rain just east of Houston, an all-time mark for U.S. rainfall. A fact that continues to astound: The weight of the water lying on Houston was enough to flex the earth’s crust, momentarily sinking the city by a half-inch.

It is very, very easy to get unnecessarily alarmed and misled by headlines about broken records. But four to five states setting all-time rainfall records in 13 months is, at least, representative of the way things are going. According to the 2014 National Climate Assessment, between 1958 and 2012 the amount of rain falling in “very heavy events”—those at the top 1 percent of all rainstorms—rose by 27 percent in the South, 37 percent in the Midwest, and 71 percent in the Northeast. Climate change is making slow-moving hurricanes more common, increasing the potential rain damage from storms like Harvey and Florence. Also worrisome is the increasing frequency of organized thunderstorm systems, like the kind that hit Wisconsin.

Hurricanes are the most damaging natural disasters, accounting for nearly half of all billion-dollar events between 1980 and 2011. But most hurricane deaths come from hazards related to inland flooding and occur away from the coast. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, inland floods cause more damage every year than any other severe weather event, at $6.96 billion a year between 1977 and 2006.

In all cases, human development complicates and aggravates the damage. The geographer Stephen Strader at Villanova has concluded that the primary reason we’re seeing a rise in storm damage is because people are moving into storms’ paths. New arrivals are vulnerable themselves, but in many cases they are also worsening the impact on their neighbors as increased density leaves the consequences of impervious development and wetland removal unaddressed. Furthermore, unprotected industrial facilities—like oil and chemical facilities in the Houston Ship Channel or the pig and chicken barns in North Carolina that are now spilling toxic waste as a result of Hurricane Florence—drastically worsen the consequences of flood events. In Madison, the subject is all the more tricky because of political maneuvering around how high to keep lake water levels. (Everyone likes high water for recreation, but it doesn’t leave much room for error when storms come.)

In all those cases, we might have gotten away with much of it—the endless fields of concrete, the open coal ash pits, the water lapping right beneath the front dock—if we weren’t also making the atmosphere more likely to deal out biblical rainfall events.

In Houston, the aftermath of Harvey has been a reckoning. Until FEMA redraws its flood maps, the city and county are playing it safe by operating under the assumption that they should plan for a 500-year flood—not the 100-year mark that forms the baseline of resilience planning elsewhere in the United States. Other places where so-called 100-year floods keep happening, like North Carolina, might want to take similar steps.

Americans no longer see climate change as melting glaciers and polar ice caps, as they did in 2003 when researchers began surveying them. Now, one of the highest associations is extreme weather, and associations between weather and climate change have quadrupled in the past decade.

Flood insurance claims are still concentrated along the coast, in part because that’s where the population is concentrated, too. But individual risk is fairly well-distributed throughout the country, with the highest median claims arising in the counties of the upper Midwest as much as on the Gulf Coast. Crashing waves may be a more compelling broadcast. But as much as rising seas, the future looks like the wide, straight course of water that an airborne photographer captured above North Carolina on Monday. It looks like a supersized canal. In fact, it’s Interstate 40.