Ultimate Guide to Climate Change Prep: What Philly Can Learn from Flint
Philadelphia’s likely the city with the most to lose with climate change as we face a hotter, wetter city. Alisha Ebling looks to a current situation in Flint, Michigan to see how Philly can learn from another city’s mistakes.
As Flint, Michigan continues to suffer through a devastating lead-poisoning problem in their water – which the President recently declared a State of Emergency – the governor of the state, Rick Snyder, has been embarrassingly unresponsive to the crisis, even denying its existence until September 2015, 17 months after the problem began.
A brief recap on Flint
The lead infiltration in Flint’s water supply began in April 2014 when the city switched from Detroit’s water source to the Flint River (i.e. to save money). As we learned from a previous post on Philly’s water, any water source must be treated with anti-corrosives before considered safe to consume. This is done so the lead pipes the water travels through does not leach into the water.
In Flint, this anti-corrosive treatment didn’t happen, despite complaints of the water’s appearance, smell, and taste, through reports of hair loss, sickness, and most recently, an uptick in Legionnaire’s Disease, a pneumonia-like condition that can lead to death. Even while children and infants in Flint demonstrate high levels of lead, the city is still in the midst of a crisis, with no clear path out.
Flint (approximately 100,000 people) demographically looks different than the rest of the state. The majority of residents are Black or African American (57% compared to 14% of the entire state). The estimated median income for Flint is $23,131, less than half of that for the entire state. The city was devastated by the Great Recession, reaching unemployment rates up to nearly 28% in July of 2009, and still faces unemployment rates up to 10% as of April 2015, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Flint has been left behind in more ways than just the water.
No area of the world is immune to an ecological disaster or the effects of an ever-warming climate, but both in our country and around the world, vulnerable and marginalized populations and communities tend to be disproportionately impacted due to aging infrastructure, lack of transportation or proper evacuation plans, and lack of funds to properly rebuild after a disaster.
Consider the botched response to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, where more than one million of the storm’s victims lived in poverty prior to its impact. Among other atrocities, evacuation plans failed to consider residents who didn’t own a car. Over half of the deaths related to Katrina were elderly individuals over 75.
The point here is simply climate change and preventable natural disasters are social justice issues. As our world continues to deal with the unpredictable impacts of a warming planet (despite recent landmark decisions, we’ll still be facing for years to come), how will we prepare? How will we prevent catastrophe from affecting the most vulnerable among us?
Is Philadelphia ready for climate change?
As reported by Philly Mag in October, “The stakes for Philadelphia are higher than almost any other American city in the difference between what happens if we cut carbon emissions and we don’t,” said Ben Strauss, Vice President for sea level and climate impacts at Climate Central.
A report from Climate Central also noted, “some 156,000 people, or about 10 percent of the city’s population…are living in areas that would be below the high-tide mark at some point in the next century if carbon emissions remain at about current levels.” This figure puts Philadelphia in a position with the most to lose without a serious curb in global greenhouse emissions.
Philadelphia’s Climate Change Report
In November 2015, Philadelphia released its first ever preparedness guide for climate change. The plan, “Growing Stronger: Toward a Climate-Ready Philadelphia,” lays out plans to take on “early implementation opportunities” and draws on city partners to make our city more prepared for the effects of climate change.
The report details the expected effects of climate change in three broad categories:
- New Normals: While the city’s buildings and infrastructure were designed to withstand climate conditions of the past, they are ill-equipped to withstand what scientists expect will occur in the future. Over time, prolonged exposure to higher temperatures and changing precipitations patterns may lead to “safety hazards, service outages, and higher maintenance costs.”
- Changing Extremes: “Extreme events such as heat waves, intense rain or snowstorms, and tropical storms and hurricanes are expected to become more frequent and/or more severe as the climate changes.”
- Rising Seas: “Although Philadelphia is 90 miles inland from the mouth of the Delaware Bay, higher sea levels will raise water levels in the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers.” The report also notes that this would “permanently inundate parts of Philadelphia” while also increasing “the depth and extent of flooding in and around the city.”
To deal with this new reality, the report puts forth potential actions that can take place on a department-by-department basis (think: Parks & Recreation, PWD, Philadelphia Streets, etc.) in order to both stave off potential climate threats and deal with recuperation post-climate event.
While this is great, it is also costly. As the report demonstrates, we are nowhere near ready for climate changes we could see in just the next few years, including extreme storms, precipitation, flooding, heat, and wind.
Take the risk of flooding, for example. The report notes that many of Philadelphia’s evacuation routes are at risk for flooding during storms, making it difficult to access hospitals, schools, and critical infrastructure, as well as to evacuate the city. Under the scenario of two feet of sea level rise, (the projected increase for Philadelphia by 2050 under even moderate greenhouse-gas-emissions scenarios) 29.5 miles of the city’s nearly 664 evacuation route miles would be “permanently inundated.” A Category 1 hurricane (the most intense storm to have ever hit Philadelphia) on top of two feet of sea level rise, would flood an additional 49 miles of evacuation routes.
But flooding isn’t the only thing we need to worry about. Can our (aging) infrastructure hold up to extreme winds? How are we planning to deal with extreme heat, especially those who it affects the most, the elderly?
Prepping for a hotter Philadelphia
We have demonstrated some progress in this regard. Following a 1993 weeklong heat wave that killed 118 people, we developed a more effective heat warning system. But note, these changes happened only after the incident. And heat is taxing, possibly leading to power-outages and suspension of public transportation. (See: 2008, when heat-induced power outages led to a suspension of rail service. Exacerbated by power outages, the heat resulted in 26 deaths and the most expensive Heatline activation event recorded between 2005 and 2013.)
Philadelphia has seen 49 record-setting daily high temperatures since 2000, 18 since 2010 alone. Considering that Philadelphia’s power grid is second only to New York City in climate change vulnerability, are we ready to be preventative, not just reactive? Can we learn from Flint’s lack of thorough water treatment?
Let’s just hope the next administration continues the process of securing Philadelphia for the changes it ultimately faces. But if our crude oil problem is any indication of a Flint-level preparedness, we have a long way to go.