Flooding (too) close to home

Road collapsed over culvert

Road collapsed over culvert

At Climate interactive, we work on climate and study the impacts, but when they hit close to home it’s a reminder of the importance of preparing in advance. Echoing many of the themes in Beth’s Hurricane Irene post, the depiction of atypical weather patterns and intensity experienced in my Greenville, South Carolina neighborhood last Saturday night is one worth sharing.

Heavy rains started a little after 9pm, and by 9:50, the street in front of my house had become a rapidly flowing river with large waves of current visible down the middle of the street. We were lucky the water level only rose above 3/4 of our front yard. Police and fire department teams had to come in and rescue our neighbor across the street, as the flood water inside their home had risen to over a foot deep. The rescue teams were unprepared for such a strong and dangerous current, so they had to ask neighbors for boats, rope, and paddles. After the rain let up, the streets began draining quickly and authorities were able to escort our neighbor across the thigh-deep water. Four other houses on our street had similar high-water levels.

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River in the street

In the days following the flood, family and neighbors helped remove belongings, flooring, drywall, cabinetry, and insulation from affected homes, and the Red Cross offered clean up kits, water, and connections to other organizations for help replacing items. The county sent workers to take notes to send to FEMA, who would evaluate whether damages were enough to justify low interest loans for repair.

While helping one of the neighbors pull the carpet up from their living room, we discovered a message in spray paint, noting the date of the last flood in 1995. Additionally, I learned that Saturday’s flood was likely intensified by runoff water that was pushed up onto the roadway due to a misaligned and/or blocked culvert on the nearby creek.

When you see waters rising (and rushing) so fast, so close by, you think, “What next? What if this doesn’t stop?”. Thoughts of retreating into the attic were immediately quelled by memories of trapped Katrina victims. But what else is there? We don’t own a boat, we don’t have flood insurance. How do you face the unexpected? It’s hard to change course and plan ahead while in the face of a disaster, which makes living intentionally and being aware of one’s surroundings even more important.

Four houses in my neighborhood isn’t a big loss, compared to the whole county or city, but it’s certainly a lot to the people whose lives are in those houses. We weren’t the only area in Greenville affected by the floods, though the damage was not county-wide. Sadly, two people died after being swept away when they got out of their stalled car in the middle of flood waters.

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View out the front door

News of our flood was covered by local sources, but didn’t make it to the front page of national news outlets. This experience has led me to ask, “Why are we seeing more floods across the country? How many more flash floods are occurring that we don’t hear about? What can we do better?”

Our team has been working with the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District to help them see how Green Infrastructure solutions can improve storm water management, while also providing financial and quality-of-life benefits to the whole community. With the national increase in heavy rains, many communities would greatly benefit from taking the time to evaluate their infrastructure.

A few lessons learned:
1. Do not try to cross roads covered with water. Don’t underestimate the strength and unpredictibility of a stream of water. Water is usually moving toward storm drains, which are UNDER the surface. Turn around, don’t drown.
2. Stay aware of new developments upstream, old (or poorly maintained) infrastructure, and county decisions that may affect infrastructure or utilities.
3. Be prepared, and know that you don’t have to be in a flood zone to get flood insurance. Visit https://www.floodsmart.gov/floodsmart/pages/preparation_recovery/before_a_flood.jsp for more information.

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