The former Hurricane Ida turned into a tropical depression and then a post-tropical cyclone on its way through the Mid-Atlantic and the Northeast, but the damage it caused was as devastating as many hurricanes—and pointed directly at the need for policies that combat climate change and upgrade U.S. infrastructure to better handle the outcomes of climate change.
At least 14 people are dead, including a two-year-old and two adults found dead in a basement after a wall collapsed, and floodwaters carried away a 70-year-old man as firefighters tried to rescue him from his car. A record 3.15 inches of rain fell on New York’s Central Park in one hour, breaking the previous record of 1.94 inches—which was set only days earlier. Tornadoes touched down in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey—10 of them in the Philadelphia area. Social media filled with videos of floodwaters rushing into subway stations and apartments and carrying cars.
One of the viral Twitter threads of flooding in the New York area made a critical point:
People who say that it’s too expensive to address climate change must be forced to answer to the costs of not addressing it. Even if you’re amoral enough to set aside the loss of human life, even if you only care about dollars, look at the damage to infrastructure from Louisiana to Massachusetts. Look at the transit systems forced to restrict services or shut down, preventing people from getting to work. Even if you only care about the crudest, most limited view of “the economy,” climate change is an unfurling disaster imposing enormous costs. According to a White House fact sheet on President Joe Biden’s infrastructure proposal, “In 2020, the United States endured 22 separate billion-dollar weather and climate disasters, costing $95 billion in damages to homes, businesses, and public infrastructure.” Tell me again how it’s too expensive to prevent $95 billion in damage year after year.
The U.S. needs infrastructure investment both in slowing climate change and in mitigating the effects of the climate change that has already happened. There’s legislation in Congress that would get a start on addressing these problems—but it’s being held up by the House Sabotage Squad and Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. And much, much more is needed, because this is not a problem for the future. It’s a problem for right now.
There are so many answers out there, but the political will is lacking. Let’s look at one small, incremental fix that could have prevented some of the damage in New York City Wednesday night while also improving things going forward: green roofs.
There are 730 buildings with green roofs in New York City, The Nature Conservancy and Green Roof Researchers Alliance estimated in 2018. While not every building is appropriate for a green roof, that’s less than 0.1% of the city’s buildings, and 60 acres of 40,000 acres of rooftop space in the city. Moreover, they’re heavily concentrated in Manhattan.
Why talk about green roofs in relation to this storm? Because, according to a 2011 General Services Administration report, “Green roofs can form a key part of a site-level stormwater management plan, reducing peak flow rates by up to 65% and increasing the amount of time it takes for water to flow from a site into the sewer by up to three hours, depending on the size of the roof and the distance the water has to travel.” Probably a city filled with green roofs still couldn’t keep up with three inches of rain in an hour, but it could reduce the flooding.
Green roofs also help fight climate change itself by reducing the heat island effect that can leave urban areas more than five degrees hotter than surrounding non-urban areas during the summer and reducing energy costs for the buildings they top. Oh, and properly installed green roofs can last significantly longer than conventional, heat-building, stormwater-runoff-causing black roofs, so you’re not paying to replace them as often.
So we look at this one change that could improve urban environments in multiple ways and, once in place, reduce costs on an ongoing basis, and yet it’s not remotely the standard in U.S. cities. That makes it a case study in how messed up the U.S. system is, that we’re not going all-in on even the easy fixes that don’t require admitting exactly how screwed we all are due to climate change.