The Storm

Pondering Philadelphia’s resilience in the aftermath of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma

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By Sam Boden

Every day, I walk the cement patchwork of the city’s streets and sidewalks, navigating the bumps and cracks of the well-worn roads that make up our neighborhoods. I have seen the ways water gathers in the streets after a heavy rain and, through working with the Philadelphia Water Department, witnessed firsthand how Philadelphia has been managing stormwater with green spaces. I’m proud to be part of the city’s work.

Watching the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, in which America’s fourth-largest city was left underwater, closely followed by devastation in Florida from Hurricane Irma, I was struck by just how precarious our urban situation is—how quickly a storm becomes a flood, and a flood becomes a catastrophe.

I have always viewed cities as bastions of power and success; fortresses that are not vulnerable to the elements. Of course, there is always a threat from extreme weather—cities are not immune to wind and water—but I have always believed in the oft-touted “resilience” of these cities. I always assumed that they were prepared to weather the worst storms.

It was not until recently that I came to terms with the fragility of our urban ecosystems: We are as vulnerable in our wood and concrete and glass structures as any other creature is in their den. The photos of Houston’s famed sprawl returned overnight into an urban delta, entire island communities flattened, and the Southeast U.S. overwhelmed by storm surge should remind all of us that there is no real distinction between the “natural” and “built” environments—all are subject to the same forces, standing on the same earth. And the earth is changing.

As a young person, just starting my career, I am inheriting a new world—one defined by more droughts, storms and heat than my ancestors, and those changes have multiplied previous threats and upended our models and predictions. While debates rage in governments around the world about the costs of adaptation and mitigation, I am left wondering: How do we move forward in the face of such an alarming future?

It’s tempting to play the blame game, to accuse everyone else of ignorance about the causes of climate change. But we have all, through our consumption habits, played a role—we’ve collectively allowed for the devastation of cities like Houston and states like Florida.

I cherish the stories of people who recognize the threats from climate change and realize that the onus is on them—and all of us—to fight back and prepare well. I have faith in the power of voices raised together to change course, and I find hope in the engagement of others in my generation.

Supporting the use of green infrastructure for managing stormwater, attending local planning meetings, encouraging decision makers to act responsibly and changing our own behavior are some of the ways that we can effect change. Watching the recent hurricanes unfold was a wake up call for me, and I desperately hope it was for others. Our days of sleepwalking through our current reality should be over. The ability to safely traverse our city’s streets depends on it.

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Sam Boden is an AmeriCorps VISTA with the Philadelphia Water Department, working on its green infrastructure initiative, Green City, Clean Waters.

Responsible for our Rain: An eco-art installation shows how we can give rain its time and its place

Rain meets a forest or a meadow at the leaves, glancing and dripping on its way to the underbrush and cushioned floor. It is a gentle trip to the ground, where the raindrops can soak into the ground slowly if they're not sucked up by roots. Rain meets a building at its roof and is quickly channeled into gutters and downspouts, reaching the ground as a scouring stream of stormwater.

On the scale of the entire city of Philadelphia, this storm water flushes into our creeks and rivers, taking with it raw sewage, turning nearly every significant rain into a Clean Water Act violation. Philadelphia's Green City, Clean Waters plan endeavors to fix this problem through a range of measures. Many of these use soil, plants and other permeable surfaces to slow the rain and give it time and space to soak into the ground.

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The Personal Side of Stormwater Management

Eastwick resident Brice Baker in front of Cobbs Creek, just yards from his house. Photo from axisphilly.orgLater this summer, Grid Magazine will be partnering with the Community Design Collaborative and the Philadelphia Water Department to bring you an insert focusing on the Soak It Up design competition, which challenged design teams to create innovative solutions to stormwater management challenges. There has been increasing attention given to stormwater mitigation lately, and rightly so. But it's important to focus on the impact of stormwater run-off, and those who are suffering because of it.

Over at AxisPhilly.org, Julia Bergman does just that, taking a close look at the issue of flooding in the city's Eastwick section (Grid covered development issues there in Sept. 2012), and the impact it is having on residents. It's important to keep in mind that while stormwater management is a complex issue that involves public policy, infrastructure investment, sustainable design and more, it is also about people's lives. 

Rain barrel program does more than divert stormwater, provides new jobs too

Each rain barrel from the ECA is made from nearly 100 percent recycled materials. | Photo from ecasavesenergy.orgSince 2011, the Energy Coordinating Agency (ECA) has been running the Philadelphia Water Department’s free rain barrel program, distributing a couple thousand barrels each year to city residents. While the program has been successful, the ECA has found that stormwater problems don’t end at the Philadelphia border.

“There’s lots of flooding in surrounding communities, and people see that they are living with a system that is essentially broken,” says Liz Robinson, ECA’s executive director. After a workshop is held near the suburbs, Robinson says they’ll get waves of calls, asking for rain barrels. However since funding only covers a Philadelphia program, ECA has had to turn away those residents.

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