Storms pack a message

LIKE POLITICS, ALL WEATHER is local. It’s what happens here that matters. This year that has become more evident than ever with grumble so often heard: Look at all this cool weather and rain—so much for predictions of global warming.

Experts warn that science can’t yet attribute individual weather events to the effects of a warming planet, even though the Earth’s climate is changing at a rate without precedent in recorded human history. Not even the sudden five inches of rain that submerged parts of northern Columbia County last week qualifies as proof positive.

But scientists do say that such events are consistent with the theories of how warming will change our lives, and that reminds us that government and individuals need to make some plans, if only because the transition to a warmer planet looks like a bumpy and expensive ride.

Not that floods are anything new around here. In 2008 the county completed a comprehensive Hazard Mitigation Plan, which identified every municipality as having some risk from flood damage. But overall, the threat from floods in the county is ranked as “moderately low” on a standard scale used by the federal government. Maybe it’s low on paper, but storms like the ones here last week do take a toll. Those rains washed away at least $176,000 worth of roads, embankments and other infrastructure in the Town of Kinderhook alone, and that figure doesn’t include the damage done to farms and businesses.

New Lebanon and Chatham also face huge repair bills for their size and tax bases, and local officials hope that the federal government will pay for much of the repairs. The municipal damage was so extensive that the cost estimate took nearly a week to complete.

This is familiar territory. Less than nine months ago this county was one of many fighting for federal aid to cope with the cleanup from December’s ice storm. Oh, and the experts say that ice storms are also more likely as the surface of the planet experiences warmer winters.

The mitigation plan includes pledges and plans by many municipalities to improve certain weak spots. And all local governments should review their planning and code enforcement operations especially as they relate to designated floodplains. One feature of a floodplain involves assumptions about 100-year and 500-year floods, which are the government’s way of expressing the probability of serious flooding rather than a guess at how many times in a century we’ll get socked. The storms last week have tested—possibly exceeded—those assumptions, which means some revisions to the plan may already be in order.

The mitigation plan doesn’t address the impact of climate change, which is not the fault of local planners. They worked within the standards they were given. But they were working with an administration openly hostile to the notion of global warming despite the overwhelming evidence that the climate is rapidly changing.

At the local level, people who violate the regulations on floodplain development don’t just run risks themselves for the loss of life or property. They can also make the problem worse by channeling floodwaters in unanticipated directions and by contributing to the pollution that results when human waste and substances like fuel get released into floodwaters. Addressing these issues is certainly within the power of local government

But no town can predict on its own where new boundaries for its floodplains should lie in a changing climate. Drawing the lines is guesswork even in the best of circumstances, and only federal agencies have the resources required to supply the basic documents that allow municipalities to plan for floods that a warmer planet may spawn. The congressional delegation that represents Columbia County and the whole state should take this message to heart as senators and representatives help municipal officials seek funds for flood relief. Planning now with a different set of assumptions will be far less expensive than doling out tax money to patch up roads, bridges and sewage treatment facilities after they have been engulfed by storms that now seem more likely than ever to hit us.

When global warming first drew public attention two decades ago it sounded like a vague, theoretical threat, as in: What will it look like when the forests of the Taconics and Berkshires give way to palm trees and coconut groves? The future is here now, and it looks a lot less benign.

 

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