New flood wall

1997 floodwaters

Climate change might sneak up gradually on your community or it may come roaring in suddenly in the form of extreme weather. That’s what happened recently in North Dakota where the Red River crested way over flood stage in a region that took disastrous hits a decade ago. That was when Grand Forks was devastated by the spring melt-off floods. But this year was different, as as Fargo flooded, Grand Forks – due in great part to adaptive planning and lessons learned years ago – averted disaster.

ICLEI tells the story here:

After incurring $1.5 billion in losses to hundreds of homes and businesses in 1997, Grand Forks was able to raise $409 million, half of it in federal funds, for a floodwall and water-diversion system to permanently protect it from the recurrent flooding that had plagued the city since it was founded. In 2007, FEMA certified that Grand Forks’ new levee system was complete and ready to protect the city from floods of up to 60 feet—nine feet higher than the crest during the 1997 flood, and well below this year’s.

The idea, of course, is to learn from others’ experiences, not to wait on building defenses until your community has had the same bad experience. That’s why pResilience is about being proactive, applying foresight, doing the equivalent of buying insurance for your local habitat.

The idea that nothing gets done until communities have a bitter taste in their mouths should be of great concern. Consider that a 2008 study from the University of Maryland found that although global climate models predict that North Dakota will become drier in the future and subject to more intense droughts, it is also expected to experience more intense storms. Given the Red River’s history of flooding, land use changes such as expanding agriculture into wetlands that once might have absorbed flood waters, and more severe weather predictions, there is little doubt that Fargo will face a similar—or worse—flood threat in the years to come.

Other communities also face increasing vulnerabilities to climate change as sea levels begin to rise, wildfires become more frequent and intense, and new public health risks such as extreme heat events increase.