In the midst of this summer’s deadly heatwaves, melting icecaps and ferocious wildfires, a rain bomb exploded over a five-county area in rural western Middle Tennessee, traumatizing multiple communities, most notably the small, friendly town of Waverly.
It was in the early morning hours of August 21, 2021, a Saturday thankfully, approximately ten miles further up the mountain from Waverly, in McEwen, Tennessee, that 17 inches of rain dropped from the sky, (nearly triple the amount of rain that pounded communities in New Jersey and New York when Ida’s remnants slammed the tri-state area on September 1, 2021, killing 40). The torrents of Tennessee rain quickly gushed into Trace Creek which soon grew into a massive thrust of water that raged down the mountainside and pummeled Waverly much like a tidal wave crashing ashore. The unexpected catastrophic flooding overwhelmed the small community of 4,000.
There was widespread and extensive infrastructure failure.
- 20 people were killed.
- 1209 homes were flooded, with several hundred completely destroyed.
- More than 125 homes were “twisted” off their foundations and just “gone.”
- Humphreys County 911 center became inoperable.
- Cell service was disrupted.
- County water system went down.
- Numerous main roads in multiple towns were impassable and some were completely washed away.
- 10 bridges were closed for days, with one requiring extensive repair and is still closed.
The summer devastation in western Middle Tennessee, with rushing water so forceful that two 7-month-old twins, Ryan and Rileigh, were ripped from their father’s arms and swept away, should be at the forefront of our minds as we come to grips with our new reality.
A clear understanding of the threats we face at 1.2ºC above the pre-industrial global temperature will be our best defense.
Prior to this tragedy, millions of Americans likely felt somewhat safe in the heartland, as well as up the East Coast in non-coastal communities. But now, post Tennessee trauma, as we assess our personal and family exposure to the risks of extreme weather events, the western Middle Tennessee flood makes it clear that there are no safe havens or hideaways. Therefore, we all must act quickly to make different choices so we can stay below 1.5ºC. Every degree higher than 1.5ºC will generate weather extremes that are exponentially more perilous.
This week in Italy, a staggering 29 inches of rain spilled from the sky in a brief 12 hours, causing floods and landslides. Sovano, Italy is 59 miles from the coast and local official couldn’t anticipate such extreme weather impacting their community without warning.
With this in mind, it’s imperative that we begin to plan for black swan weather events like these, as well as the “what ifs.” What if torrential rains of 17 inches or 29 inches gushed from the sky onto some our 1344 superfund sites. These hidden environmental hazards quickly become mixed into the swirling, raging flood waters that surround us during extreme downpours. Take for example the Oak Ridge Reservation Superfund Site in Oak Ridge Tennessee, just 227 miles down the road from Waverly. Can you imagine the nightmare that could have struck on August 21, 2021 if the rain bomb had held out a few more miles and exploded over Oak Ridge, Tennessee instead?
Oak Ridge, Tennessee is considered the energy capital of the world, the location of a large federal research facility, partly devoted to the research and testing of clean energy solutions to replace fossil fuels. Oak Ridge is quite historic, however, and wasn’t always clean. In fact, it used to be extremely toxic, and 35,000 acres of the campus were placed on the superfund site list in 1989.
Large sections of the landscape are labeled as “Highly Restricted,” which makes sense. Back in the 1940’s, Oak Ridge Reservation was:
- Headquarters of the Manhattan Project beginning in 1942 after the “top-secret atomic weapons program” was moved out of Manhattan, New York to Tennessee.
- Years were spent enriching uranium for the world’s first atomic bomb.
- According to the EPA, over the past 79 years, toxic waste has runoff and contaminated “82 river miles of the Clinch River and the Clinch River arm of the Watts Bar Reservoir.”
- Oak Ridge Reservation is one of the largest superfund site in the United States, clean up won’t be completed until 2028, 7 more years.
Imagine a raging 82 miles of the potentially radioactive Clinch River gushing towards homes downstream, following an intense 17 inch or 29 inch rain bomb. It’s almost too terrifying to process. But the possibility of this actually happening is about 50 percent likely, which does inspire immediate action.
CALL TO ACTION. We must contact our local, state and federal representatives regularly to let them know how vitally important it is that laws are passed to protect us from environmental hazards in the age of climate change.
Oak Ridge Reservation was listed as a superfund site 32 years ago. It doesn’t seem like Oak Ridge Reservation was ever a priority. How unfortunate. The situation has now morphed into a Code Red for Humanity threat. We have to start planning ahead and do whatever we can to curb the threat.
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