The dam catastrophe in Midland County, Mich., my home since birth, was a huge blow to the local economy and an emotional gut punch for those who live here. The very geography of our lives and memory has changed.
Walking through the battered, mud-covered main street of Sanford, Mich., flooded from a breached dam, and the dry moonscape that once was Wixom Lake, held back by the Edenville Dam, brought me a visceral sense of dread.
The story that has been well covered in recent days is one of finger-pointing between the lake homeowners, the dam owner, and the city, county, state and federal authorities: to assign blame for the tragedy and the damage.
But a key underlying dynamic has gotten a lot less attention. According to the U.S. Global Change Research Program, heavy precipitation events, fueled by more moisture in a warming atmosphere, have increased almost 40 percent across the upper Midwest in recent decades.
Like sea level rise, ice-sheet loss, ocean acidification, desertification and deforestation, the change has been, in human terms, gradual, and for those not paying attention, easy to ignore.
Most of our infrastructure — the roads, dams, bridges, hospitals, airports, harbors, power plants, pipelines, businesses, storm sewers and homes — was built for a planet that no longer exists. Climate change is not something that will only take place in the future. The climate has already changed in large because of human actions, and the sooner we recognize this and adapt, the better.
For most of us, climate change won’t be like the giant tsunamis and superstorms from the movie “The Day After Tomorrow,” at least in the coming few decades. Instead, it will take the form of insidious, creeping, gradual changes that tend not to draw the media and public attention and that force politicians to deal with them. That is, until extreme events push our infrastructure past important thresholds.
Storms come and go, but as long as the water stays a few inches below the levee, life goes on. Then, suddenly, with just an extra inch of rise, a barrier is overtopped, and life changes abruptly, and permanently.
The heavy rain event of the past week was consistent with this pattern. In 2017, Midland and neighboring counties were declared disaster areas after June rains, and a number of neighborhoods flooded, bringing back memories of the Great Flood of 1986, which until this week was the record for the area. No doubt many homeowners assumed the 2017 event was a freak outlier, a black swan, unlikely to occur for another 30 years. But this week, even before the dams began to fail, those same neighborhoods were flooded again.
As the new normal dawns and is priced in, these homes, most in solidly middle-class or even upper-class areas, will lose enormous value.
As that pattern repeats itself across the country, homeowners will find their wealth diminished. Middle-class neighborhoods will be hollowed out and tax bases eroded, as homes can no longer be repaired or even insured against further damage. Once-stable economies will begin to be undermined.
This might be a wake-up call for middle Americans who have assumed they were not vulnerable to climate change. Midwesterners are not subject to coastal storms or sea-level rise, nor are they in the path of giant wildfires like in Australia, Siberia or western North America. There are no Midwestern glaciers steadily and visibly wasting away.
But across the heartland, flood-control infrastructure, and dams like those in Edenville and Sanford, number in the thousands, and many, if not most, are in disrepair.
A changed climate has made each of them a strategically placed time bomb.
Midland is a community with a strong economic base. We are resilient and will rebuild, I’m sure. I hope we’ll take time and not repeat past errors, or set ourselves up for even worse catastrophes in the future.
But a much larger group of communities across the heartland are also subject to this increased battering and may not have the resources to respond.