Hurricane Ida: A Wakeup Call for the National Mall

By Tom King

The District of Columbia has just dodged another bullet — the remnants of Hurricane Ida, which swept up on us from the south-southwest after devastating Louisiana and parts of Mississippi. Ida had dropped well below hurricane strength by the time it reached us but still carried a great deal of water, some of which it dumped on us but most of which landed on New York and New Jersey, swamping those states’ decrepit infrastructures and causing multiple deaths along with much property damage.

The geophysical reasons for all this are explored in an elegant analysis at The Conversation. In a couple of nutshells, Ida swamped the mid-Atlantic because (1) its tropical moist air ran into warm and cold fronts coming down from the north, and (2) it contained a lot of moisture due to global atmospheric warming. The bottom line is that Ida was not a fluke; we will certainly see such events again, probably in the not-too-distant future.

Had Ida tracked a little to the east of its actual course, DC would’ve gotten the sort of dunking that sadly afflicted our neighbors to the northeast. This would’ve been precisely the kind of internal flooding that we have seen as recently as 2019, and disastrously in 2006 – the kind we have what been warned about in multiple well detailed scientific studies. It would have almost inevitably flooded the National Mall, the Federal Triangle, the Smithsonian museums and other public buildings around the Mall.

Tropical Depression Ida (Courtesy National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)
Tropical Depression Ida (Courtesy National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

It is also the kind of flooding that the National Mall Underground is designed to handle. The underground may not be enough to deal by itself with the effects of contemporary climate change, but it would be a good deal better than nothing, and an important add-on to the levee-strengthening and sewer enhancements that the federal and local governments have thus far taken in hand.

The inability or unwillingness of the agencies charged with Mall stewardship to consider the Underground is something our generation of DC-area residents and government officials will likely live to regret.

• Thomas F. King PhD is an advisor to the National Mall Coalition. Email him at [email protected].

 

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