In an incredible display of community, many of the volunteers for that event drove into Grand Rapids with a host of others and filled and placed sandbags throughout downtown and around the wastewater treatment plant.
Grand Rapids received more than 10 inches of rain over several days in April 2013.
The east side of the state was spared that flooding, but the Detroit Metro area was slammed earlier this month. Detroit received 4.57 inches of rain on Aug. 11. Some neighborhoods received more than 6 inches. Detroit hasn’t experienced a rain event this severe since 1925 when the area saw 4.74 inches in a single day.
Both floods have had a powerful and expensive impact. Local media reported that the flood of 2013 cost the city $1.3 million in damages, and as much as $10.6 million countywide. As early estimates of flood damage in and around metro Detroit come in, officials have not yet been able to estimate the cost, but it is expected to be well into the tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars.
Speaking to the Detroit Free Press, Craig Covey, a spokesman for Oakland County Water Resources, cited climate change and the lack of investment in infrastructure as the reasons behind the severe flooding. "If we wish to prepare and not to have to go through drama of flooded streets, electrical outages and crumbling bridges, then we need to be smarter about the future,” he said.
Covey is correct. It is becoming more and more difficult to ascribe these once rare flooding events to simple bad luck. Extreme weather events, and the subsequent flooding, have been predicted by climate scientists to increase in frequency, intensity and with a dynamic distribution compared to observed historical norms.
While it remains true that no single weather event can be attributed to climate change, the type of storm events that hit Grand Rapids in 2013 and Detroit this August were unambiguously anticipated by climate scientists.
So, if the climate has changed, are we now and forever more helpless in the face of nature’s fury? Of course not. Society can still mitigate how much climate will change, while minimizing the impact of extreme weather events by building more climate-resilient communities.
What are climate-resilient communities and how do we build them? Climate resiliency is the ability of a community to simultaneously balance ecological, economic and social systems to maintain or increase quality of life in an uncertain, dynamic climate future.
Major infrastructure investment at the local, state and federal level is a crucial first step in building more resilient communities. Climate infrastructure improvements include: rural and municipal stormwater management, complete and vital streets, clean and efficient energy sources, and less vulnerable energy infrastructure. Communities should move to waste less potable water and establish robust emergency preparedness plans.
Perhaps the most fun, quality-of-life climate infrastructure improvements include the building and maintenance of a metro-wide system of parks, environmental corridors, greenways, nonmotorized trails and nature preserves.
Traditional infrastructure becomes climate infrastructure with smart design and planning. For example, traditional streets become “complete and vital streets” when they are designed to provide safe access for all users (friendly to pedestrians, the handicapped, bikes, transit, etc.), manage storm and flood waters on-site, enhance the urban tree canopy, and grow economic vitality in business districts.
Sidewalk improvements, bicycle lanes and shared-use paths, and accessible curbs and ramps increase the portfolio of transportation options available to a community. This more diverse transportation portfolio increases user options and decreases carbon emissions.
Sound impossible? Earlier this year, Grand Rapidians overwhelmingly voted for an income tax extension to maintain and build vital streets.
Critical infrastructure improvements could go a long way in making West Michigan communities more resilient and better positioned to manage extreme weather events.
Grand Haven recently passed an ordinance to improve its own stormwater management. The new policy creates stormwater management zones to improve flood control, riparian soil erosion and sedimentation. “Green” stormwater projects can be engineered to reduce the amount of water entering overburdened systems during storm events.
The recent Detroit floods remind us of how dependent we've become on existing transportation networks, and how susceptible they are to extreme weather events.
Building resilient cities will increase quality of live regardless of whether or not climate has changed, will change, or only changes a little.
Even if you fundamentally disagree with the idea that human activity can change the global environment, you should support investments in greener, smarter and more resilient infrastructure. They will make your community stronger, your neighborhoods more livable, and reduce your vulnerability in an uncertain future.
— By Nicholas Occhipinti, policy director of the West Michigan Environmental Action Council