Columbia’s 79-year flood

Thanks to all who have checked up on me to see how I have survived the flooding in Columbia. I and my family are fine. Unfortunately many residents and businesses fell victims to the onslaught of rushing water from our rivers, streams and breached earthen dams.

South Carolina’s emergency response agencies have performed flawlessly and prevented more people from being killed or injured. Congratulations to them and Governor Nikki Haley for being prepared and professionally managing the crisis.

Bu while we learn from this extreme weather event, one thing we must not allow to influence our future behavior is the characterization of this storm as a 1 in a 1000-year event. Governor Haley has prominently used that statistic and many people will believe that this was simply a freak, almost Biblical act of nature that we will probably never see again.  This is simply not the case and we do a disservice to the public by giving them false hope.

My non-scientific observation is that the major river running alongside Columbia, the Congaree, had not risen so high since 1936. That would make this weather event for Columbia a 79-year flood not a 1000-year flood. The fact that we might have had more structural damage in the city this time in more places is due to the growth of the city—more people, roads, bridges, housing developments, business areas, etc.

Mark Gould is a former design engineer who today leads the Charleston Citizens Climate Lobby. I spoke with him today about what the flooding in Charleston was like and I asked him about the 1 in 1000 year statement.

“Floods are defined by average frequency of occurrence,” he told me. “This kind of statement that it is a thousand year flood is based on an outdated way of thinking because the statistics that went into that kind of a prediction are no longer applicable with the rapid change in climate.”

Mr. Gould believes that such flooding in South Carolina and across the country will be happening much more frequently do to climate change brought about from carbon emissions.

This is exactly the conclusion of a scientific study released last week that looked at flooding in New York City. It found that what was once considered a 500-year flood will now happen every 24 years.

Inside Climate News reported that the lead author of this study, Andra Reed of Penn State University, said, “(f)lood heights are increasing and have increased since the pre-anthropogenic era, not only because of rising sea levels but also because of the impact that climate change is having on tropical cyclones.”

Also concurring with Mr. Gould’s view that statistics of the past are not a good predictor of future climate events because of climate change is a University of South Carolina Professor with expertise in disaster risk and emergency management.

Professor Melanie Gall told Inside Climate News in regard to the New York City study, “(o)ur planning is not designed to look forward. When you look at flood insurance or how flood zones are mapped, it is always based on past events. It never looks at how storm surge will change in the future. There needs to be more proactive planning.”

We are witnessing and experiencing weather events of the future, not the past. And anything that downplays the critical need we have for climate change resiliency planning and dramatically cutting carbon emissions that are fueling climate change-induced catastrophic weather events is dangerous and inexcusable.

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