Climate Change Means All Cities Are in the Water-Rescue Business Now
Since January, the city of Birmingham, Alabama, has had to conduct 86 water rescues. That’s significant for a city that isn’t on a coast or riverbank: Birmingham is landlocked. “That’s extreme when you think about it, for firemen and firewomen who sign up for jobs to put out fires, but they’re doing water rescues,” said Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin, who spoke at the CityLab conference on Monday.
Woodfin outlined the challenges of investing in infrastructure to prevent flooding in Birmingham (which sits in a basin in the foothills of the Appalachians — hence the flooding). While it would cost the city $50 million to repave every street in town, it would take more than $500 million to build adequate stormwater infrastructure.
The mayor was joined at CityLab by Henk Ovink, a flood expert and the UN special envoy for water affairs for the Netherlands, and Melissa Martin, a Gulf Coast chef and author of Mosquito Supper Club: Cajun Recipes from a Disappearing Bayou. Ovink offered a bleak assessment of the state of infrastructure spending today: “We spend 99 cents out of every dollar on stupid infrastructure globally.”
Greater recognition of the dangers of flooding hasn’t resulted in better efforts to help those most at risk, which in the US often means Black communities in historically marginalized, previously redlined areas. Martin noted that Southwest Louisiana has lost some 2,000 square miles of land — an area about the size of Delaware — making it one of fastest examples of land disappearance in the world. “It’s the damming of the Mississippi River and it’s the oil industry,” Martin says.