Date: 2021-09-16 04:14:24
“Unlike heat and cold, there are no clear standards in New York for triggering a rain emergency, and there are no clear steps to ensure the most vulnerable are warned and protected.”
Climate change is no longer an imminent threat. It’s here, and on September 1st it killed sixteen New Yorkers. But when the remnants of Hurricane Ida swept over New York City, many were surprised — including the city government itself.
But the surprise is not surprising. The whole world is waking up to climate change, disaster for weather conditions. We’ve never experienced anything like this. But there are no more excuses; we have to act, lives depend on it. And it is no longer enough to plan for climate change in the long term. Now we have to assume that the next extreme event is just around the corner and that we have systems in place to protect people.
In New York, we learned to plan for storm surges, heat, cold, and snow, but no rain. And now we need to take serious steps to fundamentally rebuild our city’s infrastructure to withstand extreme rainfall of a few hours, as well as immediate changes to our contingency planning.
Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand are pushing for $33 million in federal funding to upgrade weather warning systems in the state and country. They are right about that. We need to create a flood early warning system. As with weather with extreme heat and cold, or large amounts of snow, we have the technology to predict and prepare for heavy rainfall that can be deadly.
The fact is that the recent rain shower was predicted and even expected by experts. Our country’s existing weather technology predicts days in advance that rainfall from the remnants of Hurricane Ida “may life threatening flash flooding,” and more than 48 hours before the worst rainfall, the New York National Weather Service office issued a flash flood watch for the city and its surroundings. But, unlike heat and cold, in New York there are no clear standards for triggering a rain emergency, and there are no clear steps to ensure the most vulnerable are warned and protected. Here’s why the first NWS flash flood warning came just 6:51 PM, after the rain had already started and the flash flood emergency was not issued until almost three hours later, to 9:28 PM. This is unacceptable. These rainfall risks need to be communicated more effectively in advance to save lives.
On September 1, the city received 3.15 inches of rain in just one hour. It’s a tremendous amount of rain for our city during any time frame, but within an hour, two inches of rain was deadly. Yes, the city has taken resilience measures after Superstorm Sandy, but they protect New Yorkers and their properties from disasters from the sea; they don’t do enough to protect against floods falling from the sky. And these kinds of storms, with too much rain in too short a time, will continue to happen. The Fourth National Climate Assessment found that extreme precipitation in the Northeast has increased nearly 40 percent since 1900 as a result of our warming climate. We need an effective yardstick to determine when to warn New Yorkers.
That statistic should not just be a measure of how much rain is expected, but a measure of how short a time frame the rain will fall to determine who is at risk and when. Once that metric is reached in forecasting, the emergency plan and public alerts should be activated at least hours in advance, giving New Yorkers time to become aware of the risk and better assess their responses.
These systems have to take into account the intensity of rainfall over short periods. What makes high-intensity rain particularly dangerous is that people don’t have time to move to safe areas before the floods become unsafe. This is exactly why we lost lives during Hurricane Ida – people sleeping in their homes felt the effects too late to evacuate safely. They had to be notified hours before the danger, not while or after. Crucially, when the city implements an alert system, it must ensure those alerts reach everyone, not just those with smartphones and regular internet access. When low-income New Yorkers are most at risk, they should be prioritized.
We also already know which New Yorkers are most at risk from flooding. Low-income New Yorkers are more likely to live in yard and basement apartments where dangerous flooding occurs — and a Yale School of Environment study recently found that flood risk for low-income homes could triple by 2050. Sara Hamideh, assistant professor at Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, has found that in general, people of color, immigrants, people with limited English language skills, the elderly and women are more vulnerable to the effects of disasters. Our warning system must be designed to reach those populations and they must also be found and informed of the risk before the next storm.
Finally, as the effects of climate change become more prevalent, it is important for the city and its many communities to understand how storms have changed and can continue to change. At Stony Brook University, I lead a Climate Extremes Modeling Group, using state-of-the-art storm forecasting models under different climate conditions. We arrive at two sets of reality: one where a storm is making landfall under pre-climate change or future climate change conditions, and one with current climate change conditions. Technology like ours can better prepare cities and people for the realities of climate change, so they can better prepare for and adapt to the unfortunate new normal.
We can’t afford to be blinded by the next deadly storm, and we don’t have to. We can ensure that Hurricane Ida is the catalyst for thorough and effective resilience measures that can save lives long before new infrastructure can be built. Climate change is here, it’s time to sound the alarm and implement climate solutions right away.
Kevin Reed is an associate professor and associate dean for research at Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences.