DC’s Poor Sandbagged in Flood Preparations

It’s a well-known twist of fate that the capital of the United States was built on malarial marshland. Major sites including the National Archives and the Jefferson Monument, the Justice Department and the IRS all stand on flood-prone ground near the Potomac River. During intense storms, the area around the National Mall acts like a bathtub, collecting runoff from across the city. The site has flooded many times over the years, most recently in 2006, when hard rains put Constitution Avenue under water, inundated Metro rail tunnels, and swamped the lower stories of the National Archives.

section of an artworrk depicting a house tossed by a tempestillustration by Yevgenia Nayberg, nayberg.org

In response, the Army Corps of Engineers and National Park Service (which manages the National Mall) conceived of what they are calling the “17th Street Levee Project.” Eight years later – overbudget and years behind schedule – the project is nearly complete. The levee is designed as a series of nine-foot-high, removable panels that can quickly be put into place in the event of a flood. Once in position, the provisional levee at the base of the Washington Monument is designed to hold back millions of gallons of water, protecting much of the capital’s cultural resources.

Stretching longer than a football field, the floodwall will be all that stands between downtown DC and inundation. Yet it leaves much of the city, lower income neighborhoods in particular, outside its protective barrier. One of the most racially and socially segregated cities in the country, DC has a history of keeping its more vulnerable populations out of the loop.

In this way, the 17th Street Levee Project is emblematic of a lot of climate change adaptation planning taking place across the US: scattershot in its concerns, hesitant to acknowledge the profound risks to come, and inequitable in terms of who and what it is designed to protect.

Julia Koster of the National Capital Planning Commission says the floodwall project and sea level rise are “related but separate” – a careful choice of words likely influenced by the fact that many of Washington’s most powerful people are climate science deniers. Yet evidence is mounting regarding the serious impact rising sea levels and extreme weather events will have on DC.

A recent study by Climate Central – a climate science organization based in Princeton, New Jersey – found that by the end of this century there is a 98 percent chance that a massive, eight-foot flood will hammer the capital. As early as 2050, the Climate Central analysis found, the city is likely to experience record flooding that would threaten not just the National Mall, but also three large military bases in the area. According to a 2012 study published in the journal Risk Analysis, “Washington … will face flooding, and eventual geographic changes, in both the short- and long-term future because of sea level rise brought on by climate change, including global warming.”

The 17th Street Levee does little to address such large-scale changes. Nor would it protect the neighborhoods alongside the Anacostia River, an area east of Capitol Hill largely populated by poor, African-American households. The US capital is a city where two very different socioeconomic systems coexist – one dominated by highly educated strivers in charge of the country’s affairs, and the other lacking in education and scrambling for work. DC is characterized by inequality, where the top fifth earn 29 times what the bottom fifth makes. While the city’s power is concentrated in its northwest quadrant (site of tony Georgetown), the poorest are gathered in the southeast, along the banks of the Anacostia.

Maps created by Climate Central indicate that some of the most severe anticipated flooding will occur in some of the poorest areas. The report’s language is clinical, but its conclusions are clear: “In the densest areas, the most socially vulnerable populations are exposed the most.”

Rich or poor, however, all of the residents of Washington, DC are likely to be affected by the impacts of sea level rise and climate instability. The construction of a wall beneath the Washington Monument is, at best, a short-term solution – one that replicates the hard edge approach of separating natural systems and urban development, rather than allowing for some give and take between the two. Given the intensity and unpredictability of impacts from climate change, walls won’t be enough to keep inundation at bay.

Yet its presence could start much-needed discussion on the issue. In the coming years, millions of tourists (along with scores of lobbyists and lawmakers) will pass by the new levee. There’s a chance it could spark a conversation about how best to prepare for rising waters, in a fashion that lifts all boats.

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