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Earth Sense: Floods can result from bad building decisions
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Residents of Calgary, Alberta, will be digging out from the mud for weeks to come. Torrential rains resulted in massive flooding that started on June 20. Some areas, including the Saddledome, a popular hockey venue, were submerged to a height of 15 feet.

Alberta’s leading government official, Premier Alison Redford, said on national news that the recovery could take as long as a decade. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation wrote on cbcnews.com on June 28 that the floods “spotlight cities’ costly failure to plan for climate change”. In view of changing rain patterns and rising sea levels, a hard look at current settlement structures is certainly in order.

The biggest losers in coming flood events will be economically challenged island nations. Haiti is already in the record books with its hurricane-induced floods in Gonaives and a horrific earthquake in Port-Au-Prince. So is Indonesia with its history of deadly tsunamis. But farther out in the Pacific, groups of small islands are particularly exposed to the wrath of the ocean, be it from hurricanes (there called typhoons), tsunamis, which are caused by quakes, or both.

It can even happen that such calamities occur at the same time, further worsening the effect. Take Solomon Islands, for example. It’s a textbook example of a tropical vacation paradise, with palm trees, sandy beaches and blue ocean views spread over 992 islands. But a quick check by Brenau University students using Google Earth last week revealed that a 50-foot tsunami, or an equally tall storm surge, would wipe out the entire business district of Honiara, the capital. No escape from the island would be possible since the airport is only 10 feet above sea level. Farther to the east, the Fiji Islands (home of Monuriki Island, known from the 2000 movie “Castaway”) are facing a similar disaster.

What can North Georgia residents do to avoid the situation that Calgary has to deal with? Build smart. A flat expanse of land, flanked by slopes on two sides, is almost always a floodplain, and likely to get covered by water sooner or later. A house located near the bottom of a valley, or on the only level land in sight, also raises a red flag. A driveway dropping down a slope to the garage will resemble the Lanier Islands waterslide when heavy rain arrives.

Water flows downhill, so check before building or buying where the avenues of surface drainage are.

Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor of physical science and director of sustainability at Brenau University. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com.

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