How Midwesterners are handling constant flooding caused by climate change

·Senior Climate Editor
·5 min read

Colin Moulder-McComb might seem an unlikely climate change refugee. The middle-aged video game developer is a middle-class Midwesterner, not an impoverished resident of a small island nation threatened by sea-level rise. But the resident of Grosse Pointe Park, Mich., an affluent, inner-ring suburb of Detroit where he lives with his wife and two kids, says global warming is destroying his family’s quality of life.

In 2016, heavy rains caused their basement to fill with 36 inches of water. “We thought it was a one-and-done, so we refurnished the basement,” he recalled. After all, they had been living in southeast Michigan for years, and the massive rainfall that caused the flood wasn’t a regular occurrence — or, at least, not yet.

The basement in Colin McComb's home in Grosse Pointe Park, Mich., as he first looked down the stairs after it flooded on June 26. (Colin Moulder-McComb)
Colin McComb's first look down the stairs to his basement in Grosse Pointe Park, Mich., after it flooded on June 26. (Colin Moulder-McComb)

He was wrong. This June, Moulder-McComb got 42 inches of water in his basement after the sewer backed up again, under pressure from more than 6 inches of rain. And then it flooded again, around 8 inches, in July. “My wife had her old band memorabilia down there; we had financial records down there,” Moulder-McComb recalled. “Basically everything got trashed. We are estimating around $40,000 of damage.”

When New York City basements flooded, to deadly effect, from Hurricane Ida earlier this month, the news made national headlines. But the underlying causes in the Big Apple — increasingly heavy rains, aging public and private infrastructure and a combined sewer and stormwater system — are just as prevalent, if not more so, in many poorer parts of the Northeast and Midwest.

It’s not just the financial or sentimental value of what’s lost, but the unpleasant hassle of dealing with the damage that has McComb’s family considering giving up on their home. Pulling out soaked couches, books, electronics and children’s toys, drilling holes to prevent mold and bleaching and sanitizing what was left has forced McComb to take two weeks off work.

Worst of all is the reason the basement flooded in the first place: The local sewer system backed up. “The second flood was actually the worst, because I actually found human feces in my basement,” said Moulder-McComb.

This problem is not unique to Moulder-McComb’s house. His entire neighborhood has been deluged. “Everybody got it. The streets were just lined with [belongings from] people’s basements,” said Moulder-McComb. “Everybody’s got PTSD now.” The engines of many of his neighbors’ cars were flooded, rendering them inoperable.

Water floods Hanover Street in Dearborn Heights, Mich., leaving residents unable to leave their homes after heavy rains in July.
Water floods Hanover Street in Dearborn Heights, Mich., leaving residents unable to leave their homes after heavy rains in July. (Emily Elconin/Reuters)

“This summer alone, we’ve had three major flooding events,” said Christy McGillivray, a neighbor of Moulder-McComb’s who works for the Michigan chapter of the Sierra Club. “I was driving my daughter, and we were actually caught on a freeway in a flash flood. It’s a climate issue that’s hitting very close to home personally.”

While the climate in the Midwest has always been relatively wet, the frequency and severity of downpours has gotten notably worse in recent decades, due to climate change. Warmer temperatures have led to more evaporation and precipitation. Between 1951 and 2017, the Great Lakes region’s average temperature increased 2.3 degrees Fahrenheit, its annual rainfall has risen 17% and it has 35% more heavy rain events, according to a study by Great Lakes Integrated Sciences and Assessments, a collaboration between the University of Michigan and Michigan State University, supported by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The flooding is worst in the areas with the oldest and most underfunded infrastructure. And that’s what has Moulder-McComb searching for somewhere with newer public water infrastructure.

In the context of greater Detroit, Moulder-McComb is actually one of the luckier people, in that he can afford to keep his house well-maintained, and to move if he must. Areas with decaying public infrastructure, or private homes with leaky roofs, disproportionately include lower-income neighborhoods in the inner city.

Detroit residents on June 28 observe a stretch of I-94 that is still under several feet of water following heavy weekend rains which flooded parts of Metro Detroit. (Matthew Hatcher/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Detroit residents on June 28 observe a stretch of I-94 under several feet of water after heavy rains that flooded parts of Metro Detroit. (Matthew Hatcher/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Between 2012 and 2020, 43 percent of homes in Detroit suffered flooding from rain, according to a recent survey of residents. Conditions like deteriorating roofs and cracks in basement walls made flooding more likely, and African American neighborhoods were more likely to flood than white areas.

There are also ways of living with regular flooding, including elevating electronic and mechanical appliances several feet off the basement floor. “As a homeowner, you have to stop thinking, ‘I will fix this by building back like it was originally,’” said Richard Rood, a professor of climate and space sciences and engineering at the University of Michigan. “You have to stop thinking of the flood as a one-off event.” Instead, Rood said, a homeowner must ask, “ What if I am in a chronic state of flood? Rather than just fixing the problem at hand, what are the things I can do more systematically to anticipate and leave me better prepared?”

Cities and towns, Rood said, can also better prepare for heavy rains by adopting new building codes that require flood-resilient designs and increasing spaces like parks that can absorb rainwater.

For individuals and families, there may be no perfect solutions to the crises caused by climate change. Asked why he isn’t looking to just leave southeast Michigan altogether, Moulder-McComb pointed out that anywhere he might go will contend with some form of climate change-induced extreme weather.

Residents in Grosse Pointe, Mich., try to clear out the damage on July 10, weeks after the first flooding.
Residents in Grosse Pointe, Mich., try to clear out the damage on July 10, weeks after the first flooding. (Aimee Fluitt)

“Global warming is screwing up everywhere,” Moulder-McComb observed. “I come from Utah and lived in California before that, and I’m watching the aridification of those areas,” he said, referring to the droughts, heat waves and ensuing wildfires that have plagued the West in recent years.

At least, he notes, Michigan will have one advantage in the gathering climate apocalypse: plenty of water.

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