Texas and Oklahoma are continuing to recover from the damage caused by several days of record rains and flash floods, though the potentially dangerous weather is not yet over. CNN reports that although water levels are mostly dropping across the two states, there is still a chance for more storms over the next six days, and any severe rain could lead to additional flash flooding. In addition, officials report that the death toll from the disaster now stands at 18, with another 13 people still missing in central Texas — an area that was hammered by enormous floods over the weekend.
From Monday night through Tuesday, it was Houston’s turn for the deluge, and at one point, the metro area received an incredible 11 inches of rain over a span of just six hours. The resulting floods killed at least six people, stranded thousands, damaged or destroyed as many as 4,000 homes, and turned some of the city’s roadways into waterlogged wastelands that one motorist likened to a scene from The Walking Dead.
Over the longer term, this kind of weather isn’t totally unexpected—extreme swings in precipitation are becoming the new normal. This month’s heavy rains are directly linked to a building El Niño in the tropical Pacific Ocean, which is forecast to strengthen throughout the summer, meaning heavy rains could return to the southern plains at regular intervals.
A steadily escalating whipsaw between drought and flood is one of the most confident predictions of an atmosphere with enhanced evaporation rates—meaning, global warming. Since 1958, there’s been a 16 percent increase in the amount of rain falling in the heaviest rainstorms on the Plains, even as long-term projections point toward an increased risk of megadrought. Both of these can happen at the same time.
Adding some additional context, the New York Times’ Andrew C. Revkin goes over how Texas’s poorly conceived growth is putting these new communities at great risk of future weather-related tragedies:
What’s vividly clear is the extreme vulnerability created by the continuing development pulse in some of the state’s most hazardous places — including [one of the hardest hit regions in Texas this past week,] Hays County, in the heart of an area that weather and water agencies long ago dubbed “Flash Flood Alley.” […]
The region’s population and building booms are far outpacing efforts to reduce exposure to flood dangers, resulting in long-predicted scenarios playing out at high cost in lives and money.
“The main challenge to rational planning for flood risk in the country is that private property rights trump even modest limitations on floodplain development,” said Nicholas Pinter, an expert on floods, people and politics at Southern Illinois University, in an email today. “And that sentiment runs deep in Texas. The result is unchecked construction on flood-prone land, up to the present day and in some places even accelerating.”
For now, President Obama has promised swift assistance to the region, though as CityLab’s Kriston Capps points out, Texas has traditionally pursued a somewhat complicated relationship with FEMA and federal aid (and federal anything).