New study assesses flood risks for schools nationwide


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The impact of flooding on schools is often compounded by aging infrastructure, according to a recent study. (FEMA)
Jenna Ladd| August 8, 2017

A recent study by the Pew Charitable Trusts generated flood risk scores for 84,123 primary and secondary schools nationwide.

The report’s authors pointed out that flooding is the most costly and common natural disaster, affecting every region of the U.S. Many times, severe floods badly damage schools, causing them to close. For example, the study points out, floods in West Virginia in June 2016 cost $130 million in damage to regional schools.

Researchers used three metrics to generate county-wide composite flood risk vulnerability scores for schools in all fifty states including: a school’s location within a designated flood zone, the percentage of a school’s neighborhood (as represented by ZIP code) located within a flood zone, and the number of historical flood-related federal disaster declarations in that county.

Among the study’s major findings are that flood risk is distributed across diverse regions of the country. Schools with the highest flood risk scores were located in the Atlantic Coast, Gulf Coast, Mississippi River corridor, and southwestern Arizona. Similarly, those schools with the highest composite flood risk scores were located in both coastal and inland regions. Those 100 counties with the highest composite flood risk scores include 6,444 schools that serve almost 4 million students.

The study made some recommendations for steps policymakers can take to increase flood resiliency for schools. They included generating up-to-date local flood maps, developing pre-disaster flood plans for schools, working to leverage federal assistance, and relocating schools out of floodplains if possible.

The Pew Charitable Trusts full analysis can be found here.

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The highest flood risk areas are scattered across many regions of the country. (Pew Charitable Trusts)

EnvIowa Podcast: Dr. Larry Weber on flood mitigation and water quality improvement projects


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Jenna Ladd | June 29, 2017

In episode 7 of EnvIowa, we sit down with Dr. Larry Weber to learn more about the Iowa Watershed Approach. Dr. Weber is a UI professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Director of IIHR–Hydroscience and Engineering, which is the parent organization of the Iowa Flood Center.

Dr. Weber explains how the $96.9 million project came to be and how it improves quality of life for Iowans while protecting our natural resources and health. He tells of successes the Iowa Flood Center has had with its flood reduction and water quality improvement programs and discusses the organization’s fight to maintain state-funding earlier this year.

The director and his team work many long days and spend hours each week driving around the state to each of the nine watersheds included in the Iowa Watershed Approach. For Dr. Weber, his work’s motivation is clear. He said,

“As an Iowan, I grew up here, I’ve worked and spent my whole career here, and I plan to retire here. I want a livable state in which we can enjoy our water and natural resources, enjoy being in the outdoors, enjoy interacting with the rivers, lakes and streams of Iowa, and, you know, programs like the Iowa Watershed Approach, I think, are vital to the long-term sustainability of our resources in Iowa.”

The EnvIowa podcast is also available on iTunes and Soundcloud, a complete archive of EnvIowa episodes can be found here.

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Nine watersheds are a part of the Iowa Watershed Approach’s effort to reduce flooding, improve water quality and protect natural resources. (Iowa Watershed Approach)

Iowa legislators restore funding for Iowa Flood Center in amended budget proposal


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The Iowa Flood Center was established after the devastating flood of 2008. (Alan Light/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | April 14, 2017

The Iowa legislature has amended its 2018 budget proposal to restore $1.2 million in funding to the Iowa Flood Center.

The 2018 fiscal year budget plan was released earlier this week. The education spending bill proposed by Republicans included $20 million in cuts and originally featured a $1.5 million decrease in funding for the flood center. Wednesday evening the House Appropriations committee reinstated 2018 funding for the flood center by transferring $950,000 out of general appropriations to the University of Iowa and another $250,000 from a National Guard educational assistance program.

Representative Ashley Hinson, a Republican from Marion, worked as a news anchor, reporter and producer for KCRG-TV9 in Cedar Rapids during the 2008 floods. He said, “I do know the value of the Flood Center to Cedar Rapids and Linn County, and immediately started having those conversations about its importance to our area specifically with our budget chairs and other appropriations committee members.”

Some Democrats are not pleased with the decision to transfer funds from the University of Iowa, calling it “robbing Peter to pay for Paul.” 

“The solution we found was based on trying to balance our priorities with a tough budget year,” responded Hinson. He added, “It was also my understanding that the Flood Center was a ‘priority’ for the University of Iowa, which is why we felt it appropriate to essentially have them share in funding it. I’m happy we were able to find a solution within our current budget constraints.”

Top doctors say climate change harms human health


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The Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health details how climate change will affect human health in specific regions of the U.S. (Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health)
Jenna Ladd | March 16, 2017

The Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health released a report on Wednesday explaining the ways in which climate change harms the physical and mental health of people in the U.S.

The report, titled “Medical Alert! Climate Change is Impacting our Health” was written by medical doctors, including allergists, pediatricians, infectious-disease doctors, OB/GYNs and gerontologists from eleven health organizations.

Very few Americans, less than 32 percent, can name a specific way in which climate change harms human health. “Doctors in every part of our country see that climate change is making Americans sicker,” said Dr. Mona Sarfaty, the director of the new consortium.

The authors broke down the specific health effects of climate change in each region of the U.S. The doctors explain that three by-products of climate change will directly impact human health: air pollution, extreme heat and extreme weather events. Increased temperatures associated with climate change intensify smog, wildfires and pollen production, leading to poor air quality, the report said. “Poor air quality increases asthma and allergy attacks, and can lead to other illnesses, hospitalizations, and deaths,” the authors wrote.

Rising global temperatures cause more frequent, longer, and more extreme heat waves in many parts of the U.S. Excessive heat leads to heat-related illness, exacerbates some medical conditions, and can cause death due to heat-stroke and dehydration. The report read, “Anyone can be harmed by extreme heat, but some people face greater risk. For example, outdoor workers, student athletes, city dwellers, and people who lack air conditioning (or who lose it during an extended power outage) face greater risk because they are more exposed to extreme heat.”

The physicians pointed out that extreme weather events are also taking a toll on their patients. The increased frequency and severity of major storms, floods, and droughts can cause injury, displacement and death, the report read. These events often prevent residents from receiving proper medical care due to blocked roads, destroyed bridges and the like. Gastrointestinal illness and disease often follow the power outages associated with extreme weather events as well, according to the doctors.

Beyond these direct impacts, climate change also speeds up the spread of infectious diseases and has an insidious impact on humans’ mental health. With temperatures rising around the world, infectious disease vectors like ticks, mosquitoes and fleas can now survive in regions that were previously too cold for them. For example, “Ticks that carry Lyme disease have become more numerous in many areas and have expanded their range northward and westward,” the report said.

U.S. residents that have experienced increasingly common extreme weather events like foods, major storms, and droughts are likely to suffer mental health consequences including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and anxiety. Anyone could experience these effects, but women, pregnant women, the elderly, children, and those with a preexisting mental health condition are most at risk.

The report concluded with a call to government leaders, asking them to address climate change in the name of human health. It read, “Doctors agree with climate scientists: the sooner we take action, the more harm we can prevent, and the more we can protect the health of all Americans.”

Natural disasters cost $175 billion in 2016, highest since 2012


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St. Antoine hospital in Jérémie, Haiti was among the structures damaged when Hurricane Matthew ravaged the country earlier this year. (CDC Global/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | January 6, 2017

Shortly after the New Year, German insurance giant Munich Re announced that natural disaster damages were higher in 2016 than they have been since 2012.

Insurance losses totaled $175 billion over the last twelve months, which is two-thirds more than in 2015. The company counted 750 natural disasters internationally, which includes “earthquakes, storms, floods, droughts and heatwaves.” The 6.9 magnitude Earthquake that shook southern Japan was the world’s most costly natural disaster this year, claiming $31 billion in damages.

North America was plagued with the most natural disasters it has seen since the 1980’s, it experienced a total of “160 loss events in 2016.” Spring heat waves in Canada led to wildfires in Alberta, costing the region $4 billion, while August floods in the southern United States racked up $10 billion in losses.

Flood events made up 34 percent of this year’s total losses. Comparatively, these events accounted for 21 percent of total losses over the last ten years. Flash floods in Germany and France cost the region almost $6 billion this year. Peter Hoppe, head of Munich Re’s Geo Risks Research Unit, said these increases are related to “unchecked climate change.”

Hoppe said, “Of course, individual events themselves can never be attributed directly to climate change. But there are now many indications that certain events — such as persistent weather systems or storms bringing torrential rains – are more likely to occur in certain regions as a result of climate change.”

Indeed, a recently published report from the World Meteorological Organization outlines the relationship between human-induced climate change and the increasing frequency and intensity of natural disasters. Among other examples, the authors point out that the 2013 Australian heat wave was made five times more likely because of human-induced warming.

The report said, “Extreme events are always a result of natural variability and human-induced climate change, which cannot be entirely disentangled.”

Precipitation in Iowa falls below average for first time since June


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Streamflow remains above average for much of northeastern Iowa as the state heads into the driest season of the year. (Iowa DNR)
Jenna Ladd | November 8, 2016

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) recently released its latest Water Summary Update. Each update provides an overview of the status of Iowa’s water resources using four categories: precipitation, streamflow, drought, and shallow groundwater. The latest update provides a water resource snapshot of trends from October 10 through November 3.

As Iowa heads into the driest season of the year, stretching from November through February, October was recorded as the first month since June in which rainfall fell below normal levels. “Abnormally dry,” or drought conditions persisted for south-central Iowa, with the lowest reported October rainfall of 0.54 inches recorded in Story County. Areas of north central and northeastern Iowa, which had experienced heavy rainfall throughout much of September, saw drier conditions at last.

Temperatures throughout the month of October were warmer than they have been since 2007, averaging about 4.5 degrees above normal. This season’s first freeze is yet to occur for the Des Moines metro area, as well as far eastern and southeastern Iowa. The northwest two-thirds portion of the state experienced its first deep freeze on October 13.

Since the previous Water Summary Update, streamflow in the Chartion River Basin in south central Iowa has decreased to normal levels. However, streamflow for most of Iowa remains above average. More specifically, streamflow in the Cedar, Des Moines, and Upper Iowa River basins remain far above average. The forthcoming four months not only mark the driest season of the year, but also the most hydrologically stable. During this period of time Iowa usually receives about 15 percent of the year’s total rainfall, or 5.5 inches of precipitation. In contrast, summer months in the state bring more than 18 inches of precipitation on average.

Water Summary Updates are released every two weeks or as water resource conditions in Iowa significantly change. They are prepared by the Iowa DNR in partnership with Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, the U.S. Geological Survey, and The Iowa Homeland Security and Emergency Management Division. A complete record of Iowa Water Summary Updates can be found here.

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(Iowa DNR)

Northeastern Iowa flash flood waters higher than 2008 levels


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Flood waters rose above many bridges along the Upper Iowa River this week. (Michael Massa/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | August 26, 2016

Iowans have seen their fair share of extreme rain events this summer. This week, three northeastern counties were drenched again.

Between six and eight inches of rain fell on Winneshiek, Chickasaw, Allamakee counties over Tuesday night as a series of thunderstorms moved through the area. Upper Iowa River gauges indicated that the river rose more than ten feet overnight near Decorah, Iowa. The area was pelted with almost an inch of rain per hour from Tuesday night into Wednesday morning. Residents in Freeport, a small community just east of Decorah, were hit especially hard. Those living along the Upper Iowa River received little notice. Emergency officials notified the neighborhood at about 5 a.m., after much of the flooding had already occurred.

“I woke up this morning when my neighbor called me and said ‘You out of bed yet?’ and I said no and he said, ‘Well you better get up,’ because the water was up to his deck,” said Ron Teslow of Freeport. Teslow had more than three feet of water standing in his basement, and he was more fortunate than others. Jon Aske, also of Freeport, said his basement collapsed in on itself as a result of the flooding, “About 4:15, 4:30 (Wednesday morning) we just heard a crash and the basement foundation crashed in,” he recalled. An emergency shelter was established at a local church for those that were flooded out of their homes.

In Fort Atkinson, a town twenty minutes south of Freeport,  Rogers Creek, a tributary of Turkey River, was reported to have risen nine feet in three hours. City officials said that they expected the Turkey River to crest more than a foot above the 2008 flood levels later Wednesday afternoon. Mayor Paul Herold wondered, “If they’re going to call that a 500 year flood, what are they going to call this?”

Decorah City Manager Chad Bird said the situation was the same in his town.”In some areas of town, the water was higher today than it was in ‘08,” he said referring to the 2008 floods. He pointed out, however, that this flood was due to flash flood conditions whereas the 2008 incident was a prolonged flooding event.

One causality has been reported after a car was swept off the roadway by water from the Turkey River in Chickasaw County early Wednesday morning. Flood warnings stayed in effect until Thursday for most of Northeast Iowa. Richland and Crawford counties of Wisconsin were also effected.