Cues from the Midwest Floods: Is Your Community Prepared?

As we think about the kind of future we want, we should be asking our elected officials this critical question: What are you doing to prepare for the present-day impacts of climate change?
Floodwaters near Frontenac, Minnesota, April 2019.
Credit: Tony Webster, Creative Commons/CC BY-NC 2.0

The Midwest has experienced one historic and record-breaking flood after another since mid-March. Parts of Davenport, Iowa’s third largest city, have been under water for nearly a week after flooding broke through a temporary levee. And more rain is on the way, keeping communities near the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers on edge as the water starts rising again.

As water from each flood recedes, residents, business owners, and all levels of government are dealing with the expensive, disruptive, and potentially dangerous jumble of debris left behind.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) last month issued its first update since 2008 to its “Planning for Natural Disaster Debris” guide. The new version now warns state, local, and tribal planners to assume the “worst-case scenario” when it comes to disaster debris. This is a stark departure from EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler’s public stance that climate change threats are “50 to 75 years out.” It’s also particularly germane to the Midwest, which has seen some of the nation’s largest climate-driven increases in extreme precipitation to date.

Debris can pose all sorts of health hazards during and after floods, including:

  • Wounds and skin infections from nails, jagged metal, and other building material lying under flood waters;
  • Bacterial contamination of local streams and lakes from rotting food and animal carcasses;
  • Increased allergy symptoms and asthma attacks from mold growing on sodden drywall; and
  • Slow or disrupted emergency services as a result of downed trees and other vegetation.

According to the EPA’s updated debris guide (emphasis mine):

“Planners should not rely solely on historical information to determine the risks to their communities because the past is not a reliable predictor of future conditions under a changing climate. Recorded changes in temperature, precipitation, and wind patterns, for example, are causing extreme weather events that are creating new risks to communities and sites.”

Preparing for this new reality will help reduce the risk of interruptions to critical services, protect human health, save money, and allow communities to make maximum use of federal assistance. After a Presidential Disaster Declaration, for example, the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) Public Assistance Program will fund some debris removal activities. A detailed debris management plan can help state, local, and tribal governments ensure they’re prepared to meet FEMA’s documentation requirements after a flood. 

So, how ready are Midwestern communities for flood debris in a wetter, wilder world?

From a quick search for debris management plans, the answer seems to be “not very.” For instance, I learned that Davenport, Iowa is working to “enhance the City’s Debris Management Plan and associated resources,” but I couldn’t find the plan itself. Will County, Illinois, has a fairly detailed debris plan, but used historical data to develop its planning scenarios. The same seems to go for Kansas City, Missouri.

More disaster debris is inevitable as the climate continues to change. Getting ready for that debris is just one of many things our communities need to do to minimize damage to our health, homes, and economy. As Midwesterners and others across the United States think about the kind of future we want, we should be asking our elected officials this critical question: What are you doing to prepare for the present-day impacts of climate change?

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