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Karen Hobbs’s Blog

New Study Spells More Trouble For Midwest

Karen Hobbs

Posted May 16, 2012 in Curbing Pollution, Environmental Justice, Health and the Environment, Solving Global Warming

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Doubled Trouble: More Extreme Storms in the Midwest, a new report from NRDC and the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization, confirms what those of us living in the Midwest probably already guessed — violent storms have dramatically increased.  The largest of storms — those of three inches or more of precipitation in a single day — have increased the most, with their annual frequency more than doubling over the past 51 years. 

Floods are to the Midwest what hurricanes are to coastal areas — the region’s most widely destructive type of regularly occurring natural disaster.  Extreme storms in isolation can cause flash flooding. When they occur where soils are already saturated and stream levels are already high, and especially when they occur in rapid succession, extreme storms can cause widespread, sometimes devastating flooding.

Across the United States, flooding is the second most costly type of natural disaster. In 2010, which ranked fourth in regional extreme-storm frequency, Iowa alone had $1 billion in agricultural losses from extreme storms. In 2011, which ranked fifth, Midwestern flooding caused $2 billion in damages.

The report identifies how future emissions of heat-trapping pollution will affect total precipitation rates. If those future emissions are relatively high, extreme storms could increase by more than 40 percent; even if future emissions are held down, storms could still increase by 20 percent.

Milwaukee, Wisconsin is already seeing these impacts.  On July 22 and 23, 2010, Milwaukee recorded 7.9 inches of rain in a 24-hour period; 5.6 inches fell in just two hours.  The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) paid out more than $50 million in damages for this one storm. 

This video was shot in Shorewood, a suburb of Milwaukee and it shows the flash flooding that occurred as a result of this storm.

Luckily for the residents of greater Milwaukee, the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD) is focusing on smarter solutions to water woes, such as localized flooding and the need to replace aging and failing sewer systems, which are challenged to handle even small storms. 

MMSD is investing in green infrastructure, which captures rain where it falls, preventing it from flooding storm drains, overwhelming sewer systems and polluting water sources.  Green infrastructure refers to a set of practices that restore or mimic natural conditions, allowing rainwater to infiltrate into the soil or evapotranspirate into the air, as well as rainwater harvesting.

MMSD investments in permeable pavement, green roofs, rain gardens and rain barrels, bioswales and resident education  are also investments in protecting Milwaukee residents and businesses from future flooding.

Local leaders like MMSD’s Executive Director Kevin Shafer get it — they understand how green infrastructure can prevent localized flooding, stretch limited infrastructure dollars and protect residents from the suffering these storms cause. 

Remember that $50 million figure that FEMA paid out in damages?  Just think what our communities would look like if we spent as much preventing extreme storms as we do cleaning up after them.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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