The scenes are getting all too familiar: torrential rains triggering floodwaters that engulf roads, houses, subdivisions and cities, overwhelming officials and residents who’ve never seen anything like it before.
“This happened in America! American problem! And we’re all Americans, everybody has an obligation to help,” Biden said.
But the United States isn’t alone in the devastation caused by these extraordinary deluges. This week, the gleaming streets of Seoul, one of Asia’s most prosperous capitals, were engulfed by floods, far exceeding the impact of an ordinary typhoon.
Nine people died, the Han River overflowed, cars were stranded across the city, and nearly 800 buildings were damaged in the worst flooding in 80 years.
There are multiple reasons cities flood, but the primary one is that rain comes down so heavily that the water has nowhere to go. Mayors everywhere have urged citizens to play a role by clearing catch basins of debris and moving cars out of the way of drains.
For years, urban planners have prescribed ideas to thwart the floods. Solutions include building sponge cities, popular in China, where rainwater is repurposed for irrigation and to flush toilets.
Green roofs and rooftop gardens have been planted everywhere from Ford Motor’s Rouge plant in Dearborn, Mich., to the skyscraper parks that abound in Singapore. Permeable pavement — half plants, half brick or concrete — is becoming a popular landscaping feature, as are the rain gardens popping up to replace curbside strips of grass.
Toronto is trying something even more dramatic. It is in the midst of the billion-dollar Port Lands Flood Protection Project, in a former industrial area southwest of downtown. Six hundred acres are being reconstructed, with parkland, wildlife habitats and eventually housing for 20,000 residents.
The project builds on conversations that have taken place since the 1970s about combining flood protection with an effort to bring nature back to the area. According to Bloomberg News, everything that needs to stay dry is being raised higher, while areas that can support water will absorb any excess flow.
Twelve hundred miles to the south, Panama City, Fla., is spending $25 million on a storm water management plan. The effort was driven by the devastating impact of Hurricane Michael three years ago. The storm took out so many trees that it changed the city’s water table, pouring more water into sewers than the system was built to hold.
Biden, speaking in Kentucky, sounded encouraging about avoiding future damage. “We have the capacity to do this. It’s not like it’s beyond our control. The weather may be beyond our control for now, but it’s not beyond our control.”
For some Detroit residents, however, some of the post-flood help that they expected after strong rainfall in June 2021 did not arrive. All 24,000 flooding claims filed with the Great Lakes Water Authority in Wayne County were rejected.
Authorities said that the widespread basement flooding that accompanied strong rainfall was simply unavoidable. Even if all the area’s pumps and other flood-mitigation equipment had been working, basements would have flooded anyway, the agency said.
However, more than 600 flooding victims have filed a class-action lawsuit against the agency and the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, alleging that only three of 16 pumps were working — a legal battle that is likely to continue.
Here in New Orleans, where I moved in May, urban flooding is an almost daily challenge, due in part to the city’s low geography. While hurricanes have stayed away this season, locals tell me they can’t remember a summer with more thunderstorms, which can cause streets to flood in minutes.
As I typed this column, I received a text reading, “Heavy rain could cause street flooding in low-lying areas.” It was the seventh such alert I’d received since June. Thankfully, I have access to information: The city’s Streetwise website tracks street flooding in real time. But even when streets are still passable, New Orleans’s notorious deep potholes can become camouflaged when filled with water.
Beyond danger to motorists and pedestrians, urban flooding poses a growing threat to communities of color. A new study from Brown University, which looked at New Orleans and five other cities, said it was crucial to clean up abandoned industrial sites — often located near poor neighborhoods — so that their pollution isn’t spread by floodwaters.
In the Bible, Noah had decades to build his ark before the great flood. With climate change increasingly appearing to produce storms that bring staggering amounts of rain, we don’t have that much time to prepare. We urgently need to expand on current countermeasures against flooding and pioneer new ones.