Bob and Irene were farmers in upstate New York. To me, they weren’t hurricanes–they were dear family friends. Actually, they sold their farm to my husband in the late ’70s, and in the years to follow Bob helped take care of things, right up until his death.
Bob knew a lot about the weather. He could feel it in his bones when there was going to be a stretch of dry days ahead, enough to get all the hay cut, baled, and into the barn hayloft.
He wasn’t as sure about climate but he could sense changes on the farm. He was my close advisor on the vegetable garden, telling me when and what to plant. “Nothing goes in the ground until Memorial Day,” he would say. “We can get a good frost up here well into May.” I followed his advice to the letter, or I did for the first 10 or 15 years. But when I learned neighbors were planting peas, onions, and potatoes weeks before us, I started to do the same.
Bob laughed off my schedule change as wasteful foolishness, but as spring indeed seemed to be starting sooner, by the early part of the new century he was game to get in the garden with me come the first of April.
We didn’t talk about the earlier spring as a consequence of global warming. We talked more about what we should plant in case the short, cool Catskill summers were giving way to longer, hotter, drier ones. It was pretty clear we were experiencing some sort of change in climate. Our small maple syrup operation was being affected as well, and we were seeing ticks and other insects that wouldn’t have made it through the colder winters of decades past.
Hurricane Bob hit the Northeast 20 years ago. It was more coastal, so our farm was spared. But in the intervening years, an increasing number of heavy rains and flash flooding of the rivers in the area has killed at least one young girl who, after rescuing her grandparents, got trapped in the family’s house in Livingston Manor, New York, as it was swept down the river.
There are lots of homes like hers throughout the country, built along shorelines, rivers, and creeks, that are ever more vulnerable in a time of increasingly severe weather events. And make no mistake, the weather is getting more extreme. “The first half of 2011,” as Dave Levitan reported, “has seen more billion-dollar weather disasters than in any other year. The National Climatic Data Center reports nine events–from the tornadoes that hit Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and elsewhere, to the ongoing drought and wildfires in Texas–that have exceeded $1 billion in damages, with a total cost of more than $35 billion.”
As if the clock were speeding up, the number of extreme weather events experienced so far in 2011 is three times the annual average for the last 31 years. If you consider all the types of climate related weather events, from droughts and heat waves to hurricanes, tornadoes and blizzards, no region has been spared.
So all of us need to be prepared, which is why NRDC put together Be Aware, Be Prepared, a guide to help you and your family get ready and stay safe in the event of an extreme weather event. We also need to come together as communities to be sure our cities and towns are prepared for extreme weather, flooding and other coming impacts expected from climate change.
“While it’s not clear what impact climate change might have on the frequency of hurricanes,” NRDC water expert, Jon Devine, writes here, “they are likely to become stronger as sea surface temperatures increase. A recent NRDC report provides some insight–exploring similar anticipated impacts from extreme weather (including more frequent and intense storms, and increased flooding), which we expect to increase in various parts of the country as a result of climate change.”
This just in: As I write this, the bridge at the base of the road from Bob and Irene’s farm has collapsed, overwhelmed by the rushing waters heaving with mud, trees and rocks torn from the narrow river’s walls. I fear for our downstream neighbors who live in the floodplain. According to a local, the town where the young girl died is under four feet of water.
As we check on family and friends, I think of Bob. The day after the water subsided from the last super storm to hit our area, he was out enlarging culverts and widening drainage ditches. He wasn’t so sure about climate but he knew the next major weather event might be worse than the last. How tragically right he was.