Historic flooding continues to saturate large stretches of land across the Midwest and Southeast United States. And with swollen rivers and reservoirs, more rain in the forecast, and an administration working to undo environmental protections, the impacts to communities, crops, infrastructure, and the economy are expected to be severe.
On Friday, just after midnight, a levee near Dardanelle, Arkansas, breached and, come morning, water from the Arkansas River was gushing through a 40-foot hole in the barrier, forcing some residents to evacuate.
Over the next week to 10 days, major or record flooding will hit every large community along the Arkansas River, the National Weather Service warned earlier this week. This flooding comes from past weeks of heavy rain which is testing the limits of aging levee infrastructure and putting crops at risk. And more heavy rain is on its way.
At the same time, every county in Oklahoma is currently in a state of emergency. And flooding in at least eight states along the Mississippi River is now the longest-lasting since the Great Flood of 1927.
In Vicksburg, Mississippi, the river has been above flood stage (the level required to cause areas not normally underwater to flood) since February 17 — over three months ago. And Baton Rouge, Louisiana, has been above flood stage since early January.
— Brian Emfinger (@brianemfinger) May 31, 2019
“It’s a slow-motion disaster,” Constable Steve Tidwell of Spring Township, Arkansas, told ArkansasOnline. “It’s taking a long time to rise, and it’ll take a long time to fall.”
According to data released last week by NASA Earth Observatory, the continental U.S. has had its 12 soggiest months since modern record-keeping began 124 years ago.
Over the past year, the U.S. collectively averaged 36.2 inches of precipitation — 6.25 inches above average. For 10 states, it was the wettest 12 months ever. For three others, it was among the top three. Many of these are clustered in the Mid-Atlantic and Midwest regions.
In addition to recent flooding, Hurricanes Michael and Florence last year dumped “copious” amounts of water on several states, NASA said, while California has been “soaked by sporadic atmospheric river events and the effects of a mild El Niño.”
Satellite maps of fresh water levels between May 1, 2018 and April 30, 2019 show huge portions of land with significant soil moisture levels well above the “norm.”
As an article by NASA’s Earth Observatory explained, “there is no one explanation for the extreme precipitation of the past year. It does, however, fit with long-term increases in overall precipitation and with heavy rainfall events in our changing climate.”
Last year’s National Climate Assessment, released by the Trump administration, warned that climate change will cause more flooding in certain areas, including the Southeast and Midwest regions of the United States.
And increased rainfall events are already causing increased inland flooding. “Extreme rainfall events have increased in frequency and intensity in the Southeast, and there is high confidence they will continue to increase in the future,” the assessment found.
All of this water is highlighting vulnerabilities in states’ levee infrastructure. Designed to reduce the risks from flooding, many of the nation’s levees are decades old.
In Tulsa, Oklahoma, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plans to release 275,000 cubic feet of water in an effort to reduce levels in the nearby Keystone Lake reservoir. This in turn will put pressure on the area’s 70-year-old levee system. “The levees have never been tested like this, and if anything were to go wrong the amount of time to evacuate could be minutes rather than hours,” the city’s mayor G.T. Bynum warned on Facebook.
And in Arkansas, Laurie Driver, a spokesman for the Army Corps, told Arkansas Online, “The structures on the Arkansas River in Arkansas are not built to hold back floodwaters. They’re there to hold back water in low-water conditions to ensure we have a 9-foot channel for barge traffic.”
After massive flooding hit Missouri, Nebraska, and Iowa in March, at least a dozen levees across the three states breached due to high water levels along the Missouri River. However, according to the Army Corps, levee repairs usually take about six months — meaning the region was at heightened risk of more flooding going into May, the most flood-prone time of the year.
According to the 2018 National Climate Assessment, “aging and deteriorating dams and levees also represent an increasing hazard when exposed to extreme, or in some cases, even moderate rainfall.”
“The national exposure to this risk has not yet been fully assessed,” the report added.
Already, flooding has cost the country billions in damages to homes, infrastructure, and crops. Farmers, in particular, have borne a significant share of the damage.
According to the Nebraska Farm Bureau, farm and ranch losses due to the flooding could total $1 billion, with more than $500 million in livestock losses alone following March flooding.
Typically, by this time of the growing season, farmers have planted 90% of the country’s corn crops. But this year, just 58% of the corn is in the ground. For soybeans, just 29% has been planted, compared to the normal rate of 66%.
The USDA announced that 58% of the U.S. #corn crop has been planted as of May 26th, compared to the 5-year average pace of 90%. This is the slowest pace in recorded history. #NoPlant19 #Plant19 pic.twitter.com/VjVsWST0DJ
— Matthew Pot (@MatthewPot) May 28, 2019
In a testament to just how devastating the start to this season has been, the hashtag #NoPlant19 is trending on Twitter; farmers are sharing photos of flooded crop land and farm equipment stuck in mud.
— Wentworth Farms🇺🇸 (@WentworthFarms) May 28, 2019
— Scott German (@Germanscott74) May 25, 2019
In some places, there’s so much water, people can kayak where farmers would normally be planting vital crops.
— West Bureau Farms (@westbureaufarms) May 30, 2019
But as farmland drowns, Beltway politicians are doing little to alleviate the impacts or prevent them down the road. In fact, the Trump administration is probably making things worse.
In the past week, three separate Republican lawmakers have blocked the House from passing a major disaster aid bill that would bring much needed assistance not only to areas suffering from flooding but also those still reeling from last year’s hurricanes.
And President Donald Trump’s ongoing trade war with China continues to put added pressure on the very same crops that are now underwater, meaning farmers’ profits are now doubly at risk.
Building resilience to extreme weather appears to be a matter of little concern to the White House. In fact, two years ago, before Hurricane Harvey hit, the Trump administration rescinded rules that required stricter building standards aimed at reducing flood-related damages. The administration is also considering weakening wetland protections — these lands play a vital role in naturally regulating floodwaters.
Meanwhile, throughout Trump’s entire presidency, the Environmental Protection Agency has worked to roll back vital pollution protections that are critical to tackling tackle climate change. But reworking policies in favor of industry demands risks rising greenhouse gas emissions, higher global temperatures, and worse impacts — including flooding.
If temperatures increase to 4 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, U.S. corn crop production could drop by half. This is the path the world is currently on — one without urgent action to drastically cut emissions. And as a World Bank report put it, this scenario is “cataclysmic.”