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As Ducey issued emergency declaration, flooding pushed Flagstaff to forefront of climate debate
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CLIMATE CHANGE

As Ducey issued emergency declaration, flooding pushed Flagstaff to forefront of climate debate

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Water again poured off of the 2019 Museum Fire burn scar and into the streets of Flagstaff on Friday, the third such event this week.

Much like previous days, flooding closed roads and impacted some homes across the Sunnyside neighborhood as well as areas to the north.

Cedar Avenue and parts of Linda Vista Drive were also closed due to flooding. Sections of Route 66 experienced significant flooding as well.

According to the National Weather Service, between 1 and 3 inches fell on the burn scar Friday.

The flooding came just hours after Gov. Doug Ducey issued an emergency declaration for Coconino County.

“Severe post-wildfire flooding is creating dangerous challenges for communities in northern Arizona,” Ducey said in a statement. “This Declaration of Emergency will give those working to protect others the tools they need to keep our communities safe. We will continue to work closely with local officials and safety personnel to protect people, pets and property throughout Arizona.”

The declaration makes up to $200,000 available to support local efforts responding to the flooding.

The governor’s move comes a day after the City of Flagstaff and Coconino County both declared a state of emergency in response to flooding. In addition to debris flows off the Museum Fire burn area, a 100-year flash flood event impacted homes further east on Wednesday.

Video of that event taken by Flagstaff resident Taylor Landy showing a neighbor’s Toyota Prius being washed down Steves Boulevard went viral, garnering millions of views online and thrusting Flagstaff into debate over additional action on climate change.

Across the country, activists and politicians pointed to the video as an example of climate change in action and used it to make the case for systematic policy solutions over individual actions as the way to tackle the issue.

In a post on Twitter that got more than 120,000 likes, a professor at Rice University in Texas commented that the Prius washed away by the flood was an apt metaphor for how the United States has sought to tackle climate change so far – the action of an individual being washed away by a larger problem.

The video was even shared by controversial New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who has pushed for the Green New Deal, a proposal that mixes a jobs and infrastructure plan with wide-reaching action on climate change.

But how much does the flooding that has inundated much of Flagstaff in recent days have to do with a changing climate?

For their part, residents experiencing the floods had mixed feelings on whether the weather they were seeing was an example of the climate changing.

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Bill Wilmoth, who lives on a cul-de-sac just off Grandview Drive, said he didn’t think the flooding has had much to do with the climate. Wilmoth pointed out that this was simply the monsoon season, with the main difference being that the Museum Fire had burned the area above them.

That situation is going to lead to debris flows and flooding, climate change or not, Wilmoth said.

But just down the street, resident Shawn Newell said she certainly feels like she is living through the impacts of climate change.

“Yeah, this is it, and I hope we can do something about it,” Newell said.

City Energy and Climate Specialist Jenny Niemann said while it is impossible to determine that any one event is solely the result of a changing climate, she added that scientists do expect that weather events are going to become more variable and increasingly extreme.

“What we know is that climate change is going to bring more intense storms,” Niemann said. “More extreme events of all types.”

The 2019 Museum Fire, spurred on by a decades long drought, the lack of monsoons the last two years, and the overactive monsoon this year are all examples of more extreme events, Niemann said.

“Climate change is here and the events of this week are just another reminder that things are changing, that we're going to see more extreme events, and that we need to prepare for this new future. Certainly these [floods] coming on the back of a Western heatwave with crazy, record-breaking temperatures all throughout the West, they're all related,” she said.

And more extreme weather may be a real headache for municipalities, local engineers and maintenance crews for years to come.

A lot of the infrastructure in Flagstaff, and in many cities across the country, has historically been built with a 100-year storm in mind. That’s a large storm that has a 1% chance of happening each year.

But storm events of that size are starting to happen with much more frequency, Niemann said, putting increased pressure on infrastructure.

And Niemann said local weather events may be a more relatable way for residents to see the impacts of a changing climate than constantly hearing about melting icebergs.

Those impacts can be as small as not being able to buy a burrito at Polibertos because Cedar Avenue is closed due to flooding, or not being able to walk in the woods because the forest is closed during the summer.

The National Weather Service in Bellemont has at least a 60% chance of rain everyday through next Thursday as a monsoon system continues to hit the Flagstaff area.

Adrian Skabelund can be reached by phone at (928) 556-2261, by email at askabelund@azdailysun.com or on Twitter at @AdrianSkabelund. 

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