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Kentucky Flooding — Emblematic of Climate Change Impacts

Kentucky flooding is the canary in the coal mine.

The deaths, destruction and long-term impacts of the flooding that hit areas of Kentucky illustrate what we are in for in the coming months and years. Recent St. Louis flooding did not have the same impacts as in Kentucky, but they too got a big dose of rain that looked to have caused what I call surface water flooding.

See this definition: Surface water floods occur when an urban drainage system is overwhelmed and water flows out into streets and nearby structures. It occurs gradually, which provides people time to move to safe
locations, and the level of water is usually shallow (rarely more than 1 meter deep).

In Kentucky, the impact of flooding is in the eastern part of the state with hilly terrain and valleys that collect the water — many times washing everything away before them in a flash flooding scenario. Here is a definition of flash flooding: Flash floods are characterized by an intense, high velocity torrent of water triggered by torrential rain falling within a short amount of time within the vicinity or on nearby elevated terrain. They can also occur via a sudden release of water from an upstream levee or a dam. Flash floods are very dangerous and destructive not only because of the force of the water, but also the hurtling debris that is often swept up in the flow.

There was this description of just a small creek: “A small creek in front of Youmans’ house is about 8 or 10 feet wide and normally less than 6 inches deep, but during the flooding, trailers were moving down the creek, he said.” I’ve often said you don’t want to be close to any water — especially when it comes to climate change. I figure this creek was the type I played in many times as a boy.

Yes, the flooding is unprecedented, but I think the precedent is being set again and again with a series of disasters. It was only last December that 75 or so people lost their lives in western Kentucky due to a tornado.

We’re seeing rain, snow, and other storms of sorts including hurricanes with wind and water damages. Then, in other parts of the nation we’ll see drought, high temperatures, wildfires and the destruction that comes from that scenario. There is no getting away from climate change.

Food security may become a much bigger issue as we lose “bread basket” areas where irrigated lands in deserts have their water allocations cut.

Still many people are in denial about the changes that are happening all around them. Everyone thinks that government will bail them out — and that won’t happen. Certainly not in a timely manner. Thousands of people remain in FEMA-provided trailers from disasters that happened several years ago.

All the infrastructure damages that we’ve seen in Kentucky can also not be repaired with the snap of one’s fingers. It will take many years for things to be put back together and the economy and livelihood of many people will be impacted.

It is a sad situation that is only going to get worse as climate impacts pile up in community after community.
Eric Holdeman is a contributing writer for Emergency Management magazine and is the former director of the King County, Wash., Office of Emergency Management.