These 100- and 200-year weather events are getting to be a habit — and Omaha needs to be prepared.
The extraordinary weekend downpour, which turned parts of downtown Omaha into a wild landscape of mud and flood debris, fits the pattern that climate scientists, here in Nebraska and internationally, have been pointing to for years. For a while, the rain was pouring down at a rate of nearly 4 inches per hour in parts of Omaha, damaging businesses and homes.
Climate change analysis has consistently said for years that such high-intensity weather events are likely to increase in our region. That was the conclusion in the 2014 study by University of Nebraska scientists as well as the 2018 National Climate Assessment and, now, the latest climate report from the United Nations — which termed the current global situation as a “code red for humanity.”
All those analyses agree that our part of the country will see increased occurrence of “low-probability, but high-severity and high-impact, events” such as heavy downpours, intense hailstorms, floods and droughts.
Like the hurricane-force storm that struck Omaha in July, toppling or shattering trees across much of the city and cutting off power to more than 180,000 area residents.
Like the derecho whose fierce winds last year brought tremendous devastation to parts of Iowa — with the paid insurance claims now totaling $3 billion.
Like the 2019 flooding, in the wake of the “bomb cyclone” that struck Nebraska, setting a low pressure record and triggering torrential downpours as well as a blizzard. The scale of destruction and tumult in Nebraska was stunning, with total damages exceeding $3.4 billion. Emergency declarations affected some 81 of Nebraska’s 93 counties. Iowa’s damages totaled $1.9 billion.
The downpour last weekend burst some of the city’s aging sewer lines unable to accommodate the extraordinary surge of storm water. Some of those lines were more than a century old.
This situation should provide a warning to developers and city leaders. As Omaha continues development for infill in older parts of the city, the infrastructure must be updated, as much as practically possible, to provide adequate protection against the future stresses expected from climate change. Perhaps infrastructure legislation moving forward in Congress will provide money to help.
In any case, Omaha must better prepare in the face of the climate threat. For proof, just look at pictures of last weekend’s devastation.