Firebird Journal

Survival and Renewal in the Anthropocene

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The Great Disruption — Floods

Flooded House (Eayrestown, New Jersey) — Chris Petsoski, Photographer, April, 2017 - CC courtesy Flickr

The Great Disruption – Part 2 – Floods

This is the second part of a series on what Australian author Paul Gilding, in his 2018 book on the climate catastrophe, has called “The Great Disruption.” (Read Part 1, Part 3) Gilding’s thesis, and that of this series, is not that we are necessarily headed toward the end of the world, or even the end of civilization, but toward a significant disruption of our economic and social systems caused by the biosphere’s loss of much of its resilience, and large swaths of the planet becoming unproductive or uninhabitable. In this series, we’ll examine disruption caused by climate migration, flooding, droughts and other environmental shocks to the planetary system, and discuss how these impacts can overlap each other, disrupting many of global civilization’s functions.

The financial and emotional impacts of the floods still resonated with families of Hull [England], 11 years after the event. — U.S. National Institute of Health study

The images are all over the news.

Muddy torrents rush through streets as people on rooftops wave for help. Wading rescuers tow elderly people in small boats. Cars float backwards down rushing streams. Cats cling desperately to trees while escaped boas swim along, looking for something to eat.

Then the flooding subsides, the dramatic footage ends, and the newscasts turn to different topics until another town is inundated. Regrettably, we don’t have to wait long for new reports of floods, now occurring year-round in both hemispheres, to deliver familiar images to our eyes and minds…maybe even our dreams.

But what about that last newscast? What happened to those people once they stopped scrambling to higher ground, the cameras left, and they returned home after sleeping on a cot in a gym somewhere?

First the mud — much of it loaded with toxins from chemical plants, festering sewage, dead animals and dangerous debris — must be scraped from their streets and floors, and somehow disposed of. Often as not, the floors have to be replaced, along with at least the lower half of most wall coverings. And of course a dumpster must be rented to dispose of carpets, furniture, clothes, family heirlooms — much of what they left behind as they fled.

Many returnees lose their jobs, at least temporarily, as business, too, are damaged. Schools are closed. Also groceries, hospitals, gas stations, banks, hardware stores. No potable water. Power out. A neighbor’s husband is still missing.

And those are the lucky people. The ones who have a home to return to, a community to try to rebuild.

Graphic Courtesy U.S. EPA

Emergency Housing — An Endless Need

In 2005, rain from Hurricane Katrina breached 53 flood protection structures in New Orleans, causing 80% of the city to be flooded. Between the city proper and the surrounding area, Katrina killed 1,392 people, and displaced — note the ratio — 1.5 million more. Although many eventually returned, many did not. According to a 2015 report by Danielle Baussan on the Center for American Progress’s website, 10 years after the event over 40% of the displaced persons were still unable to return to their homes. Only 25% were able to relocate within 10 miles of their old neighborhoods, and over 30 percent wound up hundreds of miles away.

Heather Smith, writing for Grist (online), reported that displaced people were still living in notoriously toxic FEMA trailers in 2015.

Those trailers are a cautionary tale about preparedness — or, perhaps, the impossibility thereof. When Katrina hit, there were about 14,000 new trailers for sale in the U.S. But suddenly FEMA needed 120,000 trailers. So they threw 2.7 billion dollars at trailer manufacturers, and, after a year or so, they had filled their quota with hastily built units. (The hasty construction, which relied on untreated, formaldehyde-outgassing particle board, explains why many trailers were filled with toxic fumes, causing numerous health problems before they were sold for scrap.)

At the time, Katrina seemed like a one-off event — a “hundred-year storm” or some such. Now hardly a week goes by when there isn’t a significant, if not a major flooding event. Last week it was Southern California. Last summer a deluge in the Mediterranean submerged Greek homes and washed cars out to sea. A few days later, part of the same weather system flooded normally dry Libya, killing at least 4,300 people and leaving 8,500 more missing. Just another day in the news, another harbinger of the coming Great Disruption.

So what would happen if in, say, the U.S., there were not one, but four major floods in half a year? Would we immediately build 500,000 FEMA trailers?

Editor’s Note: A version of this article appeared previously in other publications as part of an ongoing series called “Your Ecological House,” written by Philip S. Wenz, the publisher of Firebird Journal.

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4 Responses

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    1. Thanks for your comment. I’ll run my copy through spell check again. Meanwhile, next time you drop by and catch a spelling error, please write me, and I’ll fix it. These posts are written to be relevant for a while, so corrections (or mistakes) might be read down the line.

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Articles in This Series


Books by Philip S. Wenz

Your Ecological House is a homeowner and designer’s guide to creating a “home ecosystem,” an integrated habitat that conserves and produces energy, reduces waste and produces food and other goods.

This upcoming book discussed three possible futures — ” bad,” “good,” and “likely” — for the planet and humanity in the Anthropocene.

Read the Synopsis.