Why We Will See More Devastating Floods Like The Ones In Kentucky : Consider This from NPR Dee Davis remembers watching his grandmother float by in a canoe during the 1957 flood that hit Whitesburg, Ky. The water crested at nearly 15 feet back then--a record that stood for over half a century, until it was obliterated last week.

The water was more than six feet higher than the 1957 mark when floodwater destroyed the gauge.

The flooding took out bridges and knocked houses off their foundations. It had claimed at least 35 lives as of Monday afternoon.

And it was just the latest record-breaking flooding event to hit the U.S. this summer.

NPR's Rebecca Hersher explains that climate change is making extreme floods more frequent. A warming atmosphere can hold more moisture, which means, when it rains, it rains harder.

This episode also features reporting from NPR's Kirk Siegler, KJZZ's Michel Marizco and St. Louis Public Radio's Sarah Fentem.

In participating regions, you'll also hear a local news segment to help you make sense of what's going on in your community.

Email us at considerthis@npr.org.

Why We Will See More Devastating Floods Like The Ones In Kentucky

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Dee Davis still remembers the flood that hit Whitesburg, Ky., in 1957. He was in kindergarten.

DEE DAVIS: I remember being out in the yard and watching my grandmother float by in a canoe because her car flooded out, and she had a bag of groceries in her lap. And she waved at me, and I waved at her. And it's like, I was 5 years old. I've never been able to let go of that image.

KELLY: The North Fork Kentucky River crested at nearly 15 feet that year, a record that stood for more than half a century until last week. Last week's flood was more than 6 feet higher. Floodwaters actually broke the gauge.

DAVIS: The water came up quick. It was violent. It was rough.

KELLY: Davis is the publisher of The Daily Yonder, which covers rural America. He still lives in Whitesburg. When we talked to him, he had no running water, but his house is on a hill, and he points out others were hit harder. Thirty-five people are confirmed dead as of Monday afternoon, a number that is still expected to grow. The water washed out roads, knocked homes off their foundations. Davis says it reminded him of hurricanes he's covered.

DAVIS: We spent some time in the Gulf Coast after Katrina and Rita looking at - the impact of those storms is very similar. When the flood comes, there's no talking to it.

ZACHARY CAUDILL: It feels like overnight, everything's been taken away from me.

KELLY: Eighteen-year-old Zachary Caudill lives in Whitesburg, too. He was on the front lines last week helping deliver food and water to neighbors who needed it. He says it is hard to see his hometown like this.

CAUDILL: Places where I've grown up and places where I've spent so much of my childhood at, and it's completely gone.

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KELLY: Climate change is making devastating scenes like these more common, and not just in Kentucky, but around the country. Davis says many parts of rural America are feeling it.

DAVIS: It's changing agricultural practices. It's changing the way we build, and it's changing the way we plan. And if we don't take it seriously, we imperil ourselves.

KELLY: CONSIDER THIS - climate change does not just mean a hotter world. In some places, it means a wetter one. We'll look at why catastrophic flooding is becoming more common and what communities can do to stay safe.

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KELLY: From NPR, I'm Mary Louise Kelly. It's Monday, August 1.

It's CONSIDER THIS from NPR. The search and rescue effort in Kentucky is ongoing. Crews are still trying to reach people cut off by washed-out bridges. For survivors, the scale of loss is coming into focus.

MISTY THOMAS: Where I was yesterday in Breathitt County, the homes - the water has receded, but the homes are just full of sludge and mud.

KELLY: Misty Thomas is executive director of the Western Kentucky Chapter of the Red Cross, which is assisting at more than a dozen shelters in the area. Sunday, she was with flood victims as they sorted through the wreckage.

THOMAS: They were back in their homes, and they were taking these huge squeegees and just pushing the mud out the doors, and their yards were full of the debris from the inside, their lives, everything they own outside, piled up, completely destroyed. And it's heartbreaking. It's heartbreaking to watch them have to go through that.

KELLY: Governor Andy Beshear has been out in the affected counties, too. He described a scene at an aid center filled with mountains of clothes.

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ANDY BESHEAR: I got to tell you - it's tough to watch people sorting through clothes, trying to find the size that fits their family members when they have absolutely nothing.

KELLY: The governor also highlighted moments of kindness, of generosity. Virtually anyone in Perry County who hadn't lost a house was volunteering at shelters and aid centers, he said. Kentuckians who were impacted by an outbreak of deadly tornadoes back in December pitched in, too, he told NPR.

BESHEAR: The fire chief in Mayfield, one of the towns hit hardest by the tornadoes, got in an ambulance yesterday and drove to eastern Kentucky to help out. And the reason that he and the mayor wanted to do that was that the world was there for them in their time of need, and they wanted to be for eastern Kentucky - pretty incredible.

KELLY: Looming over the recovery - the threat of more flooding. When Beshear spoke Monday morning, rain was coming down again.

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BESHEAR: If things weren't hard enough on the people of this region, there is severe storm potential today in all of the impacted areas. That is just not right.

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KELLY: Destructive flooding like this has unfolded across the country this summer. Just days before the disaster in Kentucky, Saint Louis got more than 8 inches of rain in five hours. Buddha Poutthasith was in his car when floodwaters overtook it.

BUDDHA POUTTHASITH: I just heard a big woosh and waves. And next thing you know, I'm in 3 - 4 feet of water.

KELLY: Meanwhile, in northern Arizona, rain in the mountains is triggering flooding in homes below. Wildfires have burned away areas of forest that would normally have absorbed some of that water. Paul Fox (ph) in Flagstaff narrowly averted disaster.

PAUL FOX: Our house almost flooded. We had a couple of neighbors who actually - these guys, these guys, a handful of neighbors - grabbed some sandbags and, you know, added of a couple rows.

KELLY: And earlier this summer, there were those surreal scenes of flooding in and around Yellowstone National Park. NBC News aerial footage of a house sliding down a cliff face...

(SOUNDBITE OF HOUSE FALLING)

KELLY: ...Bobbing downstream. Flooding like this used to be a once-in-a-generation-type disaster or even rarer. Speaking as the waters began to recede at Yellowstone, Park Superintendent Cam Sholly said it does not feel that way anymore.

CAM SHOLLY: I've heard this is a thousand-year event, whatever that means. These days they seem to be happening more and more frequently.

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KELLY: Floods like these are getting more common. And a major culprit is climate change. My colleague Asma Khalid talked with Rebecca Hersher from NPR's climate team about how a warmer planet translates to more flooding and what it means for the places most at risk.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Rebecca, what is going on? You know, when I think about climate change and flooding, I mostly think about sea-level rise. But that's not where all of this is happening. I mean, we're talking about cities far from any coastline.

REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: Yeah. And, you know, there are many ways that climate change can cause floods. Coastal floods get a lot of attention, especially when they happen during a hurricane. But actually, inland flooding is more common. And the kind of devastating heavy rain that we've seen this week is something that climate scientists have predicted for many decades, that as humans keep burning fossil fuels, the atmosphere gets hotter, the air holds more moisture, and so when it rains, it rains harder.

KHALID: And has that turned out to be true?

HERSHER: Yeah. The climate models are correct, and actually, scientists can observe it in real time now, which is pretty scary. So heavy rain has increased all over the U.S. and in the Southeastern U.S., including in Kentucky, it's increased by almost a third.

KHALID: Wow.

HERSHER: You know, that might not sound like a lot, but an extra inch of rain, if you think about it - if that falls in a short period of time, that is how you get a flash flood.

KHALID: So explain that, because I do think it is shocking to see some of the damage that all of this rain has caused, particularly in Kentucky, as you mentioned.

HERSHER: Yeah, the danger and the damage comes from moving water, and that can happen in two ways. So first, when a lot of rain is falling in a short period of time, the water doesn't have anywhere to go. It can't soak into the ground, especially if the ground is already saturated. So that causes the water to pool on the surface. And then if there's a hill, even a really small hill, one that you might not even notice, all that water starts to roll downhill. It gathers speed. It gathers power. It can pick up debris. And that is a flash flood. It's really dangerous. It can carry away cars. It can carry away houses, and it can kill people.

KHALID: So how common is that type of flooding? You know, you said it is getting more frequent at this point.

HERSHER: Yeah. And unfortunately, these kinds of floods, they're so frequent that they're a part of life in some places. There are towns and cities in the U.S. where flash floods happen every year or every other year. That's true in parts of southeast Texas and Louisiana, parts of the Midwest and Appalachia, where this week's floods happened. For example, last summer, there was a flash flood that killed nearly two dozen people in Tennessee. That same area was hit by very heavy rain this year. And it's important to say this is not just a U.S. problem. It's happening outside the U.S. as well. So heavy rain has caused deadly flash floods in Germany and Belgium, South Africa, India, China and Australia. And that's just in the last year.

KHALID: So what can be done to warn people when a flood is about to happen?

HERSHER: Well, that's actually something that the National Weather Service is really focused on. So local offices are watching for signs of heavy rain and then trying to warn people as early as possible if a flash flood is likely. And that's really important because so many of us get our weather warnings now directly on our phones, right? Your phone will flash, and you'll get an alert saying there's a flash flood warning for your area. And if that happens, you need to take it extremely seriously. And particularly don't drive on flooded roads. It's one of the main ways that people die in flash floods. Their cars just get swept away.

KHALID: So, I mean, I've got to wonder, are there ways to make these floods less dangerous, or do we all sort of have to learn to live with this new reality?

HERSHER: There are lots of ways to make them less dangerous. So basically you slow the water down, give it safe places to go. For example, have less pavement so the water can soak into the ground. You can build retention ponds, you know, those low marshy areas for excess water to collect.

KHALID: Right.

HERSHER: And in cities, you can make the pipes bigger. So a lot of U.S. cities were built 50, even 100 years ago. The storm water systems are not built for the heavy rain of today. It's expensive to make those pipes larger, but it's really important if you want to prevent streets from turning into rivers.

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KELLY: Rebecca Hersher from NPR's climate team, talking with NPR's Asma Khalid.

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KELLY: It's CONSIDER THIS from NPR. I'm Mary Louise Kelly.

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