Scientist warns 100-year weather event that overwhelmed Richmond drains could become commonplace

Published: Sep. 17, 2021 at 10:40 PM EDT|Updated: Sep. 17, 2021 at 11:14 PM EDT
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RICHMOND, Va. (WWBT) - Within just hours Thursday, three to five inches of rain fell across the region turning the streets of downtown Richmond into rivers - quickly overwhelming the drainage systems.

According to VDOT, the flash flooding that temporarily closed stretches of I-95 was partially caused by debris blocking the mouth of the storm drain. VDOT crews were able to remove the blockage, which helped the water recede and reopened lanes, but across the city debris largely wasn’t to blame for the flooding.

The sheer volume of water dumped in such a short period of time is considered rare, but if you ask the experts, the flash flooding that was seen across the city Thursday, was almost inevitable.

“Even if all of the drains were working absolutely perfectly there would have been so much more flooding expected just because of what it was designed to convey,” said Jeremy Hoffman. “It’s hard to imagine being almost waist-deep in water in an otherwise very elevated area of the city.”

Hoffman is a climate scientist with the Science Museum of Virginia. He says that at best the city’s storm drain systems are only designed to handle an extreme weather event of up to five inches of rain over a 24 hour period or in other words a once in a decade event. Hoffman says the most recent weather event was many times worse.

“It was extremely intense, extremely short in duration, and would otherwise be seen as a very rare event, it’s what would be called a 100 to 200-year event,” Hoffman said. “A couple of rain gauges in the neighborhood and nearby registered over three inches in the matter of an hour.”

But Homman says once-in-a-century events may soon become commonplace.

“Climate change makes extreme weather events more extreme and right now our infrastructure is designed for a past that’s no longer here,” Hoffman said.

Hoffman says climate change is fueling the frequency of these events. Friday, Mayor Levar Stoney echoed the same warning.

“Our climate is changing and we need to update our systems for the times,” Stoney said.

Stoney says he’s investing money to help mitigate the city’s lacking Storm system.

“Climate change is real that’s why we put dollars to use in our spending plan where we have a climate risk assessment that I’m investing in, but also 13.5 million dollars invested in focusing on our stormwater systems as well,” Stoney said.

But Hoffman says there’s also a need at the grassroots level for communities most impacted by extreme weather to invest in greener infrastructure.

“We know by 2050 or so these same events that we saw yesterday might be between 5 to 35 percent more intense and happening more frequently so whey you start to put that into perspective you start to see how serious of a situation this is and how we need to start investing for the future,” Hoffman said. “We need to invest in things that absorb and hold on to that water before it goes into our sewers is a huge thing that we could be doing in all of our neighborhoods,”

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