Tennessee Valley Authority: “We have never experienced such a major weather event in our history”

Mal-adapation: Missouri levee failure highlights need to increase infrastructure investments and prepare for climate change

TVA COO:  Wednesday’s series of storms caused major damage to the TVA power system. We have never experienced such a major weather event in our history….  Hundreds of thousands of consumers are without power because of damage to power lines and other equipment….  The three units at the Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant in northern Alabama automatically shutdown [safely] as a result of transmission line damage from the storm.

One thing is clear from all of the extreme weather slamming the United States:  We are ill-prepared for human-caused climate change, whose primary near-term impact on most Americans will be from the ever-worsening weather extremes.

The warming and the deluges are connected (see Masters: Midwest deluge enhanced by near-record Gulf of Mexico sea surface temperatures).  Capitol Climate has just aggregated the data from NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center on “Monthly total number of daily high temperature, low temperature, and high minimum temperature records set in the U.S.” for the last few months.  April was very extreme:

Steve Scolnik” reports April has seen “1759 record high temperatures in the U.S. vs. 310 record lows, a ratio of nearly 5.7 to 1, exceeding even March’s 5.3 to 1. This is the highest since the ratio of 6.1 last April.”  That compares to the ratio for the last decade of 2.04-to-1, which itself was double the ratio of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s (see “Record high temperatures far outpace record lows across U.S.“).  So US temperatures are becoming more extreme — and April has been unusually extreme.

Water and climate scientist Peter Gleick, President of the Pacific Institute, has a good HuffPost piece on “A Cost of Denying Climate Change: Accelerating Climate Disruptions, Death, and Destruction.”  Of course, if the do-nothing crowd keeps denying the reality of climate science, and the climate activists downplay the reality of climate change, as some argue they should, then we are certainly never going to get prepared for what is to come (see “Conservatives oppose adaptation, too“).  That’s why ClimateProgress has a whole category devoted to extreme weather and the best science on how it is linked to human-caused climate change.

As long as folks deny or downplay the connection, adaptation will be little more than a euphemism for abandonment, triage, and misery.  Of course, we aren’t even “adapting” to the current level of extreme weather.

We didn’t build levees capable of protecting New Orleans from a major hurricane storm surge before Katrina — and we still haven’t prepared it for a Category Five storm even though we know it is inevitable one will hit the city.

It is not just New Orleans that is unprepared for our present level of extreme weather, as WonkRoom explains in “Missouri Levee Failure Highlights Need For Increased Infrastructure Investments,” reposted below:

For several days, the midwest and southern U.S. have been pounded by deadly storms, which have brought tornadoes and widespread flooding. Today, a levee in Poplar Bluffs, Missouri, failed in at least four locations, which is “expected to send flood waters from the Black River racing into a populated but rural area of Butler County.” It is currently unclear how many people will be affected by the flooding, but the threat of the levee failing at another location prompted the evacuation of 1,000 people.

The levee’s failure is a tragic reminder of the sorry state of America’s infrastructure. This particular levee failed a federal inspection in 2008, receiving an “unacceptable” rating from the U.S. Army Corps. of Engineers. In the U.S. patchwork levee system, many local communities are responsible for levee upkeep, and this particular community couldn’t afford the cost.

According to the Army Corps of Engineers, nearly ten percent of the levees in the country are expected to fail during a flood event. The Civil Corps. of Engineers gave the U.S. levee system a D- grade in 2009, and estimated that it would take a $50 billion investment to get those levees into adequate shape:

“During the past 50 years there has been tremendous development on lands protected by levees. Coupled with the fact that many levees have not been well maintained, this burgeoning growth has put people and infrastructure at risk””the perceived safety provided by levees has inadvertently increased flood risks by attracting development to the floodplain. Continued population growth and economic development behind levees is considered by many to be the dominant factor in the national flood risk equation, outpacing the effects of increased chance of flood occurrence and the degradation of levee condition.”

Projected federal spending on levees in the next five years is expected to be just $1.13 billion, leaving a $48.87 billion shortfall in needed funding. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, “there are 881 counties “” or 28 percent of all counties in the United States “” that contain levees or other kinds of flood control and protection systems.” More than half of the U.S. population resides in those counties.

Overall, the U.S. has about $2.2 trillion in unaddressed infrastructure needs. The Congressional Progressive Caucus budget that was released earlier this month includes $30 billion “as start-up costs for a national infrastructure bank that would leverage private financing to help rebuild America’s public capital stock,” and budgets for $1.2 trillion in public investment over the next five years.

And we’re the richest country in the world.  Just imagine what climate change will do to much poorer countries (see “Bolivia: Where adaptation equals abandonment“)

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37 Responses to Tennessee Valley Authority: “We have never experienced such a major weather event in our history”

  1. Richard Brenne says:

    The larger the river often the flatter the valley it is in and the larger the area of wetlands on either side which is nature’s (rather large) sponge to absorb inevitable flooding.

    Levees alter this eco-system and someday every levee system will inevitably be overtopped, broken or both at its most vulnerable points.

    The Egyptians knew this and so they farmed along the banks of the Nile and built permanent structures only on higher ground farther from the river. The Mississippi and its tributary river systems developed along different lines, including channelization for improved river navigation.

    But all of that has meant building levees. The triage wisely mentioned here is inevitable, and the lowest and most vulnerable currently inhabited land will one day inevitably need to be abandoned and returned to wetlands.

    Mother Nature’s hot flashes (feel free to use metaphors unflattering to men – we deserve it more) will dictate much of this more than our own decisions do. The orgy of consumption and wealth associated with cheap and abundant fossil fuels has made us think that everything we do is our choice.

    Reality, I’m afraid, has other things in mind.

  2. sydb says:


    [JR: These are Biblical disasters.]

  3. Merrelyn Emery says:

    All those tornados, all that destruction, over 280 dead. How is the Dirty Digger, our [your] dear Rupert, going to explain this lot? ME

  4. Wit's End says:

    Thanks JR for making the connection between extreme weather and climate change. The horrible devastation of such events has to be linked over and over until the Ignorers get the message that it’s going to be infinitely more costly, in every dimension, to deny climate change than it would be to drastically conserve energy while converting to clean, renewable sources.

    The pattern is clear – we cannot afford Katrina’s, Fukushima’s, Gulf oil spills, floods, droughts, wildfires and tornados, and rising seas. The time has passed for reticence about connecting the science to real-world effects.

    Climate Progress is in the courageous vanguard in this regard.

  5. Dan MB says:

    It feels as though we’re on the verge of a contraction. GDP stalled in the first quarter, oil prices remain high, food prices increase, and the cost of storm damage may be staggering.

    It reminds me of autopsy reports. They describe a single cause of death not the combination of factors that are the reality 95% of the time. It’s rare for one single trauma to kill. It’s when a combination of factors make recovery unlikely.

    To adapt we’ll need a new economic order, and visionaries who are excited about an economy that supports us all. Hopefully we’ll get there before chaos engulfs us.

  6. Sarah says:

    With interest rates at 1% and massive unemployment, what time would be better for government investment in infrastructure?

  7. Michael T says:

    Tornado blows sign 112 miles into next state

    RINGGOLD, Georgia (AFP) – A powerful tornado which ripped across a small town in Georgia, swept up everything in its past and then roared north into Tennessee, finally dumping a store sign more than 112 miles away.

    Linda Summitt of Knoxville, Tennessee, could not believe her eyes when she walked into her front yard on Thursday morning and found the sign for the Remco Business Center.

    But it wasn’t the stray sign that really caught her attention. It was where it had come from — some 112 miles (134 kilometers) to the south from the town of Ringgold, Georgia.

    It was a 4X8 cardboard “FOR LEASE” sign from Remco, which is based in Ringgold, near the Georgia-Tennessee border, which was devastated by a deadly storm and tornado late Wednesday.

    She checked the number on the sign and rang the store owner immediately.

    “I said ‘You’re kidding,'” Alvin Mashburn, the owner of the center, told AFP. “I told her just to keep it as a souvenir.”

    Read more:

  8. Deborah Stark says:

    There was some tornado activity across upstate New York over the last two days as well. In Albany, NY it was 74 degrees at 10:30pm EDT Tuesday.

    It’s bad enough that so many people across the South lost their lives this week. But there will also be hundreds out of work, homeless, flat broke, etc. If we’re going to keep overloading the atmosphere with greenhouse gas emissions there had better be a very reconstruction large fund to help the people whose lives are being completely destroyed by these increasingly frequent volatile weather events.

  9. Colorado Bob says:

    It was 111F at Laredo , Texas Tuesday. The highest number yet recorded in April there.
    3 stations in Miss. set new all time rain fall records yesterday.
    Tunica, Miss got 7.94 inches

  10. Deborah Stark says:

    I meant very large reconstruction fund…


  11. My question posed to the NRC is about what standards of tornado strength is required in the engineering of nuclear plants – is still unanswered.

    It is a trivially easy prediction to say there will eventually be an F6 twister that will take the roof off of a nuclear containment dome – like the cap off a bottle of Coke Cola.

    A TVA nuclear power plant with 3 reactors was shutdown today, and a plant near Richmond, VA was shutdown last week by a tornado.

    So the question remains to the NRC – Are our nuclear power plants built sufficiently strong to withstand a direct hit by a massive tornado?

    When do we discover the answer to this?

  12. Bern says:

    Richard, I understand new plants have very high requirements – outer containment / protection buildings designed to withstand a jet impact at 600mph will easily withstand wind-blown debris, even at the 300+ mph of an F5 (is there such a thing as an F6?).
    Many older plants may not have anything like that protection, though – yet another reason for retiring older nuke plants ASAP!

  13. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Merrelyn #3, Rupert is still ‘alive’, so I would guess that his reaction to the death and destruction suffered by others would be utter indifference. As for nuclear plants, a good few in Japan are sitting atop fault-lines capable of earthquakes at least as great as that of March 11, and the ‘re-processing’ plant at Rokkasho contains a witches’ brew of nasties that, if disturbed, would make Chernobyl look like a tea-party. And in the US the danger is not that any heretofore experienced twister might breach the containment vessel, but that a direct hit, or cataclysmic flood, or earthquake, might disrupt the power supply or that of coolant water.

  14. Barry says:

    Colorado Bob (#9), good to have you back in the comments. I’ve been missing your regular extreme weather links.

  15. Barry says:

    We are witnessing a record start to USA fire season, tornado season, flooding levels and a jaw-dropping number of high temp records. All this just as predicted by climate science.

    And GOP says there is nothing we can do about it because we aren’t causing any of it.

    Seems like we could at least try a tax cut for the wealthy. That seems to fix everything else.

  16. Theodore says:

    Levee failure does not indicate that we need to build bigger levees. It indicates that we need to zone land in the floodplain for purposes that will not produce a major loss when the river floods. Let the river do what it naturally does, and stay out of its way. Only a few businesses actually need to be built right on the river. The vast majority of people who build in the floodplain could have built elsewhere and should be required to do so. If the entire floodplain were used for growing trees, I would not consider it to be mismanaged or under-utilized.

  17. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Thanks Mulga, yes, utter indifference sounds right but my question was badly worded. I am really wondering how much more of this gathering catastrophe around the planet it is going to take before we see cracks appearing in the Murdoch Empire’s wall of relentless denial, ME

  18. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Merrelyn, I do not doubt for an instant that Murdoch, and most of the Rightwing MSM (Lomborg was in The Age, just the other day)will deny everything as long as possible, out of ideological zealotry and loyalty. Then, when one sees an opportunity to gain some advantage over the others, a crack might appear. Of course, by then it will be way too late. What comes next, the ‘Anger’ stage of Kubler-Ross’s mourning process, really worries me, but worries come in legions these days -‘mob-handed’ as they say on ‘The Sweeney’.

  19. catman306 says:

    Earthquake are forecast soon from dutchsinse who has some nifty software:

  20. Lenny says:

    This is why we need to call it Climate Chaos not Climate Change

  21. Steve says:


    In an AFP article, a U.S. meteorologist and a FEMA administrator say we shouldn’t make the connection between the deadly tornadoes Wednesday and climate change:

    I don’t agree, but how would you respond to them?

    [JR: The jury is out on that link. I talked to a number of climate scientists about this. You get differing views Might do a post next week. The deluges and heat extremes and drought and wildfires are doing enough devastation and have the clear climate link, so I have been focusing on them.]

  22. Fire Mountain says:

    The nation is being ripped up by monster storms, floods, tornados. Hardly a week passes without another wave blowing across the continent. And there’s two words the major media can barely whisper – climate change. Oh well, there’s a royal wedding to cover, really important stuff unlike all this uncomfortable climate hoohoo. The people running the major national news shops in New York, Washington and Atlanta should be ashamed to call themselves journalists. They are not only missing the real story in front of their eyes – they are actively ignoring it.

  23. paulm says:

    22 steve, even if there isn’t a link, something I doubt, a little white lie is in order here!

  24. PurpleOzone says:

    now ‘extreme’ has to be qualified: ‘very extreme’ or ‘unusually’ extreme April…

    Where do you go next: ‘ultra extreme’ or ‘humungously extreme’?

  25. catman306 says:

    “Ultra extreme climate chaos” has a ring to it. The trouble is that most people don’t understand the concepts of “exponential” or “orders of magnitude”. Words just won’t go far enough to explain.

  26. Richard Brenne says:

    Steve (#22) – I know the culture over at the Weather Channel as well as death threats might make it hard for Stu Ostro to be as completely candid as he would like, but I caught the tail end of a “causes” discussion about the tornadoes yesterday where he said “Yesterday it was 91 degrees with 70 per cent humidity in Alabama. Those are summertime conditions.”

    Those summertime conditions met an impressive end-of-April cold front. I don’t have the exact figures (Colorado Bob? Prokaryotes? Ed Hummel? Buehler?) but my guess is that cold front was possible in 1 out of a few years. But the warmth and humidity in Alabama for the date was maybe something like a 1 in 50 year event during the 20th Century, and now it might be closer to something like a 1 in 10 (figures just for illustration purposes provided courtesy of my backside) year event.

    So yes, global warming was a contributing factor in the recent tornado outbreak, no matter what anyone says, no matter how expert.

  27. Colorado Bob says:

    As with any major weather disaster these days — from floods and hurricanes to wildfires and this week’s tornado outbreak in the South — people ask questions about its relation to the huge elephant that’s lurking in the corner, global climate change.

    Two separate studies in 2007 reported that global warming could bring a dramatic increase in the frequency of weather conditions that feed severe thunderstorms and tornadoes by the end of the 21st century.

  28. OregonStream says:

    Re #22 (Steve), it makes sense that more energy in a storm cell (or the warm, moist air feeding into it) could have an influence. But as I hinted in a comment over there, it takes more research to firmly establish a link. What bothers me is that they leave the impression that the idea is just silly, when we can’t rule out the possibility that a trend is in the works that hasn’t yet been scientifically established.

  29. Oakden Wolf says: has some very good graphics showing temperature extremes. I’ve used them in two recent posts about record high temperatures, but they also have records for precipitation (snow and rain).

    Spring has sprung: record highs dominate mid-March

    Temperature records set across the country this week (for mid-February; addressing a dimwitted Steven Goddard attack on Joe Romm)

    The Final: Record High Temperatures, February 13-20, 2011

    Unfortunately, you can’t go back in time on the site and generate records for any given week, but you can do it for past records by day.

    The last several days have been quiet, record-wise (they don’t have data on tornadoes), so the flooding is mainly driven by snowmelt and runoff from previously saturated areas: April 16-19 had lots of precipitation records, generally moving from the Midwest to the Southeast and then the Northeast.

    Here’s where to go:

  30. Prokaryotes says:

    Fire Mountain says “They are not only missing the real story in front of their eyes – they are actively ignoring it.”

    This, and the signs of system collapse are all over the place, and there will be no system to replace the old one. The new existence will be in small communities ruled by anarchy, chaos, doom – worldwide.

  31. Prokaryotes says:

    “After the glacier melts, the earth rebounds …”

    Periods of exceptional climate change in Earth history are associated with a dynamic response from the solid Earth, involving enhanced levels of potentially hazardous geological and geomorphological activity. This response is expressed through the adjustment, modulation or triggering of a wide range of surface and crustal phenomena, including volcanic and seismic activity, submarine and sub-aerial landslides, tsunamis and landslide ‘splash’ waves glacial outburst and rock-dam failure floods, debris flows and gas-hydrate destabilisation.

    The day after tomorrow quote: “The Hollywood Sign is Gone”

  32. Oale says:

    These kind of normal events are up-played by media industry to incite fear of God and the powers that are, so people will not vote for progressives, and continue to buy heavier cars that withstand tornadic damage. I’ll say, those killed by this normal event should be thinked of as martyrs of big oil.

  33. Oale says:

    (/sarcasm)-tag was lost

  34. Chris Winter says:

    BTW: There’s a typo in the sub-head: “Mal-adapation”.

  35. Stephen Watson says:

    @15 Barry – superb comment. Some much encapsulated in so few words and so funny!