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Climate Expert On Why People Outside Of Tennessee Should Be Worried About Its Storm


The deluge in Tennessee last weekend was just the latest in a summer full of unprecedented weather events. Seventeen inches of rain fell in 24 hours. It killed at least 21 people and washed away hundreds of homes and businesses. Climate scientists say storms like these are not just freak events. Instead, events like this one will become more common as climate change intensifies downpours. Janey Camp is a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Vanderbilt University, and she joins us now.


JANEY CAMP: Thanks so much, Ari. I'm glad to be here.

SHAPIRO: Living in Tennessee, how are people talking about this flood? Are they thinking this is just how the weather is going to be now?

CAMP: I don't think so. I think it's more seen as an anomaly, even though we've had several pretty significant flood events in the past decade and as recent as March of this year. So it's becoming a regular thing, but it's hitting different people in different ways. So I don't think the general population is seeing this as the norm yet.

SHAPIRO: Even to describe it the norm doesn't quite capture it because climate change means the definition of normal is just going to keep getting worse, right?

CAMP: Absolutely. I think we're going to see more extreme events, and we're going to see flooding in areas that we historically have not and at levels that we haven't seen.

SHAPIRO: Explain why that's happening in Tennessee because I think many people associate climate-related flooding with coastal areas like Miami, New Orleans, cities that get hit by hurricanes. Explain why a landlocked state like Tennessee is seeing more of this.

CAMP: Well, Tennessee may be a landlocked state, but we have a lot of surface waters and rivers and streams and tributaries to the rivers and streams. But we also see flooding in areas that are not attached to a river or stream. And sometimes those are low-lying areas where a lot of precipitation accumulates, and we don't have adequate stormwater infrastructure and drainage to convey that water away. That can happen in landlocked states like Tennessee.

SHAPIRO: So let's say you identify your house as being in a flood-prone area. Maybe the city is even offering to buy out houses in those neighborhoods. How likely are people to actually relocate based on a forecast of what climate change is going to do in their part of the country?

CAMP: So in the Nashville area, we've had a pretty proactive home buyout program in place for over 30 years. And the city of Nashville has a wish list of properties that they know have potential flood risk. The challenge is not everyone that is offered a buyout participates because of their connection to their home and their community. So that's one of the challenges is when, you know, government officials try to help people get out of harm's way, they don't always feel comfortable participating. And then if what we've seen in Nashville and other areas is there's limited housing stock for people to relocate to that's at a comparable value without having to move away from their local community and that network of social connections that they are tied to.

SHAPIRO: You know, at the beginning of this conversation, you said most people in Tennessee are not seeing these floods as a sign of what the future will look like. And that being the case, I wonder whether you think these programs that are going to require major adaptations and big adjustments in people's lives are likely to succeed without that buy-in from the local population.

CAMP: The timeline for the projections is often challenging for individuals, especially if you think about someone that may have lived in their home 50 or 60 years. When you say, well, with climate change, you can't live here anymore in the next 10 or 20 years, it's hard for them to kind of grasp that and think about starting over somewhere.

SHAPIRO: That's professor Janey Camp of Vanderbilt University, who studies climate change and risk management.

Thank you very much.

CAMP: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Amy Isackson
Mano Sundaresan is a producer at NPR.
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