OPED: Ellicott City video mirrors our response to climate change

Citizens' Climate Lobby

“The impacts of climate change are no longer subtle,” Michael Mann, a leading climatologist at Penn State, told the Guardian in a recent article.“They are playing out before us, in real time.”

A submerged car is visible in the Patapsco River, seen from the Howard County side of Patapsco Valley State Park after the sidewalk caved in due to Saturday night’s flooding in Ellicott City, Md., Sunday, July 31, 2016. Historic, low-lying Ellicott City, Maryland, was ravaged by floodwaters Saturday night, killing a few people and causing devastating damage to homes and businesses, officials said. Amy Davis/The Baltimore Sun via AP

This was apparent to me July 31, when I awoke to find social media inundated with video clips of the extreme flooding in Ellicott City, Maryland — which claimed two lives the night before.

In one of the videos posted, diners caught the devastation outside from the second floor of Portalli’s Restaurant on Main Street in Ellicott City. In watching the roughly six-minute video looking out the windows at Main Street, a comparison can be made to society’s response to the climate crisis we are now experiencing.

The first minute or so shows flooding at low levels. A few people are standing at the windows seemingly unaware of the disaster that will unfold over the next few minutes. Cars can be seen driving around (inadvisably) in water racing down Main Street in Ellicott City. Diners can be heard in the background enjoying their dinners while servers continue to attend to them. An astonished voice off camera loudly exclaimed “Dude there goes a garbage can!”

Roughly a minute and a half into the video, a loud alarm goes off and lights start to flash. People are noticeably becoming more alarmed. The camera pans to a young girl who looks up from her phone and nervously laughs “I don’t know what to do.”

About two and a half minutes into the video, we see a crowd of people at the windows. The water level is noticeably higher and is rising fast.  In the background “Oh my God” can be heard over and over, “there are cars floating down the street” and “I can’t believe this is happening” can be heard as well.

At three minutes and 50 seconds into the video, the whole scene changes dramatically. Up until this point, there was a strange disconnect of the restaurant occupants from what was happening outside. Until this point, off-camera voices were speaking about cars and other debris rushing past in the flood waters.  No one inside seemed to question whether or not they were in danger.

I heard no one wonder aloud what was happening to the first floor of the building they were standing in.  Other than concerns about cars, no one questioned if they might be affected somehow. At this point in the video, a man’s voice yells “There’s people in the water” and people in the crowded room become shaken, almost panicky  A female voice cries “Get out!” to people floating past in their car.  Suddenly there is a realization that people are being affected right outside and there is human suffering involved.

A worker carries lumber to shore up one of the stores on Main Street after the sidewalk caved in due to overnight flooding in Ellicott City, Md., Sunday, July 31, 2016. Historic, low-lying Ellicott City, Maryland, was ravaged by floodwaters Saturday night, killing a few people and causing devastating damage to homes and businesses, officials said. Amy Davis/The Baltimore Sun via AP

Climate scientists have been warning us for decades of the risks associated with burning fossil fuels. They are like the few people looking out the windows and paying attention to what’s happening outside at the start of the video. Much of the American public is like the restaurant patrons and staff who seemed to be oblivious to the disaster happening right outside.

Sure, there are some who will say that science cannot prove climate change was the cause of the death and destruction in Ellicott City on July 30 and climate “skeptics” will use that to argue against climate action, but science does tell us that carbon pollution is making events like this more frequent and more intense. It’s not about causation, but about trends and the trends are clear.

According to the 2014 National Climate Assessment; “Across most of the United States, the heaviest rainfall events have become heavier and more frequent.” The percentage increase in the amount of precipitation falling in very heavy events — defined as the heaviest 1 percent of all daily events — from 1958 to 2012 in our region is a stunning 71 percent.

The flooding in Ellicott City left many older residents wondering if it was worse than the flooding brought by Hurricane Agnes in 1972. The Weather Channel described the amount of rainfall falling July 30: “The NWS (National Weather Service) said 6.05 inches of rain fell during the storm, and 5.92 inches of that fell in two hours. If the time frames are shortened even more, NWS data shows Ellicott City received 4.56 inches of rain in one hour, 3.16 inches in a 30-minute span and 1.44 inches in 10 minutes at one point. Rain of that intensity should happen rarely, if ever.”

Historic Ellicott City faces long recovery after flooding

This flood was the third 1,000 year flood to hit the United States this year. Three areas in the United States have been hit by a flood of this severity in the first seven months of 2016, and there have been nine such events since 2010, according to USA Today.”  The other two floods were in West Virginia in June and Houston, Texas in April. Southern Louisiana is currently dealing with their own climate disaster after “colossal amounts of rain” fell on the area last week.

We are at a point where we need to recognize climate change and the human suffering it is causing now. We need to figuratively put down our forks, get up from the tables and look out the windows, because the impacts of climate change are no longer subtle. They are playing out before us, right outside our windows, in real time.

— Jon Clark is the Mid-Atlantic regional co-coordinator for Citizens’ Climate Lobby and lives in Dover.