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People in the Upper Midwest are grappling with catastrophic flooding


OK, the Upper Midwest is facing catastrophic flooding after days of heavy rain.


Parts of Minnesota, South Dakota and Iowa are hardest hit. And for some neighborhoods in the region, this is the second major flood in just five years. Rob Jansen (ph) of Rock Valley, Iowa, was helping his mom after her house was severely damaged by floodwaters.

ROB JANSEN: It's nice to be by the river for recreation. But it's also a risk that you take living by one when it floods like this, when you lose everything. Some people lost their homes totally, so not easy to see.

INSKEEP: Rebecca Hersher of NPR's climate desk is here with more. Rebecca, good morning.


INSKEEP: OK, so if we just look at a map, this is an area with a lot of rivers that feed into the Mississippi River. What caused them to rise so much?

HERSHER: Honestly, it's just bonkers amounts of rain last week and into the weekend. Seven inches of rain fell in just two days in parts of South Dakota. That is the most rain ever recorded in 130 years there, and that caused these rivers to swell. You know, a disaster like this can unfold kind of slowly because it takes time for all the stormwater to collect and flow downstream. So over the last few days, as the water has crested, we've seen the real damage. Homes destroyed, bridges and dams broken, levees overtopped. And unfortunately, all of this is exactly what scientists expect will happen more and more in this part of the country as the Earth heats up.

INSKEEP: OK, so what is the connection between climate change and this type of flooding? Some people will have questions because there have always been floods.

HERSHER: There have always been floods. Heavy rain, though, is getting more common in the Upper Midwest. So in the last 60 years or so, scientists have noticed that when it rains really hard, more water is falling than in the past, like 25% to 45% more water. So not a little bit more rain, a lot more rain. And the other thing that scientists have been warning about for decades is that heavier rain means more frequent major floods. So floods that used to happen every few decades instead are going to happen every few years, and we're definitely seeing that on display as well. You know, this part of the country also had a record-breaking flood in 2019, and again now, just, you know, five years later.

INSKEEP: Although, this is also a part of the country that has tried to adapt to floods. If you go to rivers in this area, there's often, like, parkland, open space near the river. There are levees. There are flood zones. Is this not enough?

HERSHER: You know, it's not enough. Some of that infrastructure was able to keep up with all this water, but in many places, the existing levees in particular are just not high enough to handle record-breaking rain. And I spoke to hydrologist Nicholas Pinter about this. He says levees are built to protect against the floods of the past, you know? But today's climate is not the climate of the past.

NICHOLAS PINTER: The current flooding in the Upper Midwest is a reminder that we've put a lot of eggs in the basket of protection by levees. And it's a brittle protection. So your levee holds until suddenly it doesn't, and the result is often catastrophic and sudden flooding.

HERSHER: And that's what we're seeing right now. Now, modernizing flood protection in places like the Upper Midwest will take a lot of money. And some of that money is actually starting to be doled out. There are billions of dollars for this kind of work in the bipartisan infrastructure law that Congress passed just a couple of years ago.

INSKEEP: Rebecca, thanks for the updates.

HERSHER: Thanks so much.

INSKEEP: That's Rebecca Hersher from NPR's climate desk.


NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Rebecca Hersher (she/her) is a reporter on NPR's Science Desk, where she reports on outbreaks, natural disasters, and environmental and health research. Since coming to NPR in 2011, she has covered the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, embedded with the Afghan army after the American combat mission ended, and reported on floods and hurricanes in the U.S. She's also reported on research about puppies. Before her work on the Science Desk, she was a producer for NPR's Weekend All Things Considered in Los Angeles.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.

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