Instead of preparing, our leaders seem to shrug their shoulders at extreme weather events

Aug 14, 2014

Last winter was the snowiest and one of the coldest ever in Metropolitan Detroit. Three days ago, the area was hit by an absolutely devastating rainstorm and the following floods.

We don’t know if these events were influenced by climate change. We do know that the infrastructure, from freeway ramps to storm drains, wasn’t adequate to deal with the problems.

Our roads were in urgent need of investment before this happened, and many are in worse shape now. For years, we’ve known that the water infrastructure in southeast Michigan was in need of major upgrading.

But we haven’t done any of it.  

And what is most baffling is that this horrendous weather event hasn’t really motivated our leaders to pledge to do something to try to keep us safe in the future. Instead, what we are hearing is bland excuses. Some are saying that no amount of improvements could have prepared the system for five inches of rain in an hour.

The mayor of Warren, perhaps the worst hit city, called this a “once in 200 years rainfall.” Unfortunately, this may well have the effect of making us think we don’t have to do much. 

If we won’t get another environmental disaster for 200 years, we don’t have to worry.

Well, guess what. We need to worry, and worry now. Yes, it has been 89 years since a rain like this one. But the population then was a third of what it is now, and we did not depend nearly as much on highways, appliances and machines.

Nobody who has looked at the evidence can doubt that the climate is changing, regardless of why. Yet nobody in leadership seems interested in seriously addressing this. Our major party candidates for governor have been squabbling like schoolkids.

"Delaying annual investment in infrastructure is like sticking our heads in the sands and hoping it doesn't rain or snow." -- Mike Nystrom

A spokesman for Democrat Mark Schauer complained yesterday that Governor Rick Snyder waited too long to declare this was a disaster. The Republican state chair shot back that Schauer had no idea what was happening because he was campaigning in other parts of the state.

None of which is helpful.

The only sane look ahead I’ve seen came from Mike Nystrom, the executive vice president of the Michigan Infrastructure and Transportation Association.

Yesterday, he said “Delaying annual investment in infrastructure is like sticking our heads in the sand and hoping it doesn’t rain or snow.”

And then he added, “The Michigan Legislature can’t ignore the situation any longer.”

Well, I wish Nystrom was right, but our legislators have shown an amazing ability to ignore reality.

They have refused to appropriate new money to fix the roads. Yesterday was one of the rare summer days they were in session, and the only significant thing on their agenda was wolf hunting.

Yet they all want to be reelected.

Local governments, by the way, aren’t blameless either. Twelve years ago, Lansing did authorize $1 billion in bonds for communities to repair sewers, but they were afraid to take on the debt, so they did nothing.

​​Years ago, the novelist Rebecca West wrote that mankind’s epitaph might well be, “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”
Speaking of ideas, it would be nice if our leaders had some.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.