When Will We Start Expecting Extreme Weather, And Planning For It?

We cannot claim surprise any longer.

When the mayor of New Orleans spoke on the 12th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina this Tuesday, he looked to Houston.

Texas ― and Houston in particular ― took in tens of thousands of Louisiana residents after Katrina, and now the city was itself turned to a lake after catastrophic flooding from a hurricane; people stranded without food, water or proper shelter wading through high water in search of escape; and people being rescued by volunteers or professionals, losing their cars, their homes, their pets, their lives.

The trauma and devastation ― as well as the heroism and charity ― were all too recognizable to New Orleanians. “Our hearts break for them,” Mitch Landrieu tweeted this week, and added in a statement: “We will do all we can to help them stand back up.”

Katrina, the mayor noted, had been viewed when it hit as something of an outlier in terms of its incredible damage. But then, he said, superstorm Sandy pummeled the city of New York to the northeast, making it the second-costliest hurricane after Katrina. And how, Harvey has devastated Texas to the west.

Landrieu didn’t pivot directly to climate change, but it is both implied and scientific consensus: Storms and extreme weather events are growing in severity and likelihood thanks to our planet’s warming climate.

As a child, I don’t remember year after year of record-breaking weather events. I don’t remember “the hottest,” “the coldest,” “the wettest” and “the driest” tumbling off news announcers lips with such ubiquitous frequency.

But Victoria, B.C., my hometown, saw record-breaking temperature highs this week, in the midst of that province’s summer of record-breaking wildfires. Harvey has unleashed more than Houston’s typical annual rainfall in just a few days, and it surpassed the 50-inch record for single-storm rainfall recorded on the continental U.S., according to the National Weather Service. As relatively gently as Harvey hit New Orleans, it still shed enough rain for the city to break its annual record of 34.27 inches this year.

Toronto just had the warmest February on record, one of ten warm-winter records set across Southern Ontario. Quebec’s spring flooding broke water-level records for multiple waterways.

The weather is always, it seems now, unprecedented. Shouldn’t that mean, at some point, that we begin to expect that which has no precedent?

The focus in Texas, and now parts of Louisiana, remains on saving lives and serving those evacuated and rescued, but much of the surrounding conversation hangs on the surprise of Harvey’s impact. It is the same surprise we see at the wildfires ravaging B.C.

People are being blamed for living too close to the sea, or in flood prone areas, or too close to dry forests. Officials will be criticized and questioned over their response. But there is a middle ground between deserting major hubs of the U.S. economy ― such as the oil industry is to Houston and even New Orleans ― and pushing on as if these storms and fires and floods aren’t coming. While we can question a city’s emergency preparedness, we can also ask whether it isn’t more everyday policy decisions that doom us.

One year ago, the Texas Tribune and ProPublica charted how urban sprawl has decimated prairies and green spaces which are crucial to absorbing water in flood events in their investigation “Boomtown, Flood Town.” While cities like Rotterdam in the Netherlands are built to adapt to flooding and rising sea levels, to “live with water, rather than defeat it,” as the New York Times put it, New Orleans has a pumping system that even the mayor admits is not capable of responding to unusually heavy rains.

At some point ― and probably very soon ― we won’t be able to claim surprise at climate change’s growing costs anymore. The question will be asked: How did we ever imagine it would turn out otherwise?