Friday, May 29, 2015

Bill Nye stirs up controversy about climate change and Texas floods

Bill Nye, “The Science Guy”, has stirred controversy saying that the huge flooding in Texas is the result of man-made climate change.  Salon has a piece on him here 

A vacuum cleaner of persistent low pressure, associated with a dip in the jet stream, has helped fuel relentless storms.  As the soil is more saturated, more water evaporates and becoming fuel for more big storms.  The geography of the Hill Country (a very scenic area) tends to funnel water quickly into narrow streams that converge (even more so than in Appalachian areas).  Bayous in Houston can overflow because of overbuilding and concrete. 

Dallas, where I lived from 1979-1988, is, I hope, more resilient.  But my last three years, I was in a condo a half mile from a stream that has overflowed since I left (in Pleasant Grove – I was on Lake June Road).  The Trinity River is enclosed by flood walls, which I have seen close to full, and there used to be low income housing in the flats – don’t know if it is still there.   In the summer, we usually had extreme drought, with three months without a drop of rain.  There was one close call with a tornado in December 1987.  Large tornadoes and severe thunderstorms were not as frequent as farther north in Oklahoma.  But an unusual microburst from a thunderstorm (more common in the mid-Atlantic, a kind of mini derecho) contributed to a big Delta plane crash in August 1985 at DFW. 

The flooding in Houston and the Hill Country has destroyed hundreds of homes, but I don’t think it is close to the scale of Katrina.  I hope the homeowners had bought separate flood insurance.  Otherwise, they will be needing handouts, or start over. 

After Katrina, I volunteered at a Red Cross call center in Falls Church occasionally for a few weeks (in September 2005), but there was little we could do in most cases but refer people to FEMA.  Some people were housed as far north as Washington and Baltimore.  I don’t know it is likely this time. 

The insurance industry says that 25% of flood clams come from homes not on flood plains or in coastal areas or river valleys.  If you are within 50 feet of elevation of any stream, you need to consider flood insurance.  If you want to live in NYC, you’re safer north of 34th St, or in the northern half of Brooklyn or in most of Queens.  (The city is lower than most people realize when visiting it.)

Another risk can be a buried stream, following a civil engineering practice done in many areas even back in the 1940s.  You may not know about it.  There is one near where I live, and it has never ruptured in 65 years, even with hurricanes like Agnes in 1972, or Isabel in 2003 or Sandy in 2012 (which did very little damage in the immediate area).  But there is always a first time.

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