The Midwest’s flooding crisis is a terrifying preview of climate impacts to come

Deadly and historic flooding is plaguing states across the Midwest, isolating entire towns and upending the region in what experts worry is an ominous preview of future climate change impacts.

National media has been slow to cover the tragedy, which has left several states, including Nebraska, Missouri, and Iowa, all reeling from turbulent weather conditions. As of Sunday, nine million people across 14 states were under a flood advisory.

And while the devastation is shocking, locals say it’s becoming more commonplace.

“This level of flooding is becoming the new normal,” John Hickey, director of the Sierra Club’s Missouri chapter, told ThinkProgress.

In a statement Friday, Gov. Pete Ricketts (R) said, “Nebraska has experienced historic flooding and extreme weather in nearly every region of the state.”

Nebraska is experiencing its worst flooding in half a century. At least three people are dead after several major rivers in the state rose to record levels. The Missouri, Platte, and Elkhorn rivers all crested over the weekend to record-shattering levels in the aftermath of last week’s “bomb cyclone” — a massive weather event that brought high-speed winds, snow, and heavy rain to the region.

More photos from Fremont, Norfolk, Schuyler, and Bellwood. pic.twitter.com/5yalLY5kZ7

— Gov. Pete Ricketts (@GovRicketts) March 15, 2019

 

The historic flooding is the result of rain coupled with a considerable amount of pre-existing water on the ground. February brought a record-setting 30 inches of snow to the state, which locked in several inches of water. With eastern Nebraska’s rivers already higher than usual following the state’s fifth-wettest season in 124 years, the bomb cyclone unleashed a mountain of water, submerging parts of the region.

Two of the deaths associated with the deluge in Nebraska include a man who refused to leave his house and another who drove around a flood barrier. The third was a Nebraska farmer attempting to help others, who was in a tractor. At least two other people are missing and presumed dead as of Monday morning and some small towns have been completely cut off by the flooding.

Water use is also becoming a problem. According to mandatory water restrictions circulated by the city of Lincoln, Nebraska, the city’s drinking water is still considered safe but residents are being advised to follow mandatory water use restrictions. This includes postponing laundry, bathing, and washing dishes, in addition to minimizing the flushing of toilets.

Other states are preparing for flooding impacts. In Iowa, nearly 2,000 people at eight different locations have been evacuated in the past seven days. Minnesota, Wisconsin, and South Dakota are also bracing themselves for flooding, along with Missouri and Kansas.

President Donald Trump and other politicians have weighed in on the devastation and offered condolences, but few lawmakers have connected the events to climate change. One exception is Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), a Democratic presidential contender who addressed the flooding on Twitter.

“Long-term, we must take bold steps to stop climate change, which makes extreme flooding much worse,” Sanders tweeted on Saturday.

Connecting any one weather event to climate change is often impossible or incredibly challenging, but experts say the flooding is indicative of larger climate impacts. According to the government’s National Climate Assessment (NCA) released last fall, the Midwest is likely to see an uptick in flooding associated with global warming.

“The NCA basically said, ‘Hey, climate change is going to mean more floods in Missouri and in the Midwest,’ so this is not a surprise,” Hickey, of the Sierra Club, said.

In a statement to ThinkProgress, environmentalist and 350.org co-founder Bill McKibben also drew the connection between global warming and the devastating flooding.

“Increased flooding is one of the clearest signals of a changing climate,” said McKibben. “Since warm air holds more water vapor than cold, we get increased evaporation in arid areas (think drought, and wildfire) and when that water comes down it tends to do so in torrents.”

Citing Nebraska’s flooding in particular, McKibben argued that the state’s “current trauma is part of everyone’s future.”

Experts more broadly argue that the flooding sends a message to lawmakers. Arvind Ravikumar, a professor at the Harrisburg University of Science and Technology, told ThinkProgress that government at every level needs to do more to prepare for climate change.

“All of this comes down to cutting carbon emissions — climate change isn’t just about decreasing sea ice anymore. It is about the impact in our communities from Alaska to California to Texas to Florida,” said Ravikumar. “And the longer we delay climate action, the worse off we will all be.”

That reality hasn’t sunk in for many lawmakers. Several states, including Nebraska, have been slow to introduce plans addressing climate change, while the Trump administration has worked to roll back regulations that would help mitigate the impacts of global warming.

Still, Hickey said, in states like Missouri, local communities understand what’s happening and the ways in which climate change is impacting their lives.

“I think a lot of people get it,” he said. “I was talking to a farmer… this past growing season, there was both a drought and a flood. The National Climate Assessment says [we’ll have both] and he was clear it was about climate change.”

Read more: thinkprogress.org