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Flash flooding can be a big problem for metropolitan areas with poor drainage, but Mayor Randall Woodfin believes climate change and systemic racism have made it a much worse issue for the city of Birmingham.
On Monday, Woodfin joined a panel of experts at the Bloomberg CityLab summit in Amsterdam, Netherlands, an event hosted by Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Aspen Institute where municipal leaders, academics, businessmen and artists from around the globe discuss ways to improve urban environments, “from leading their communities through pandemic recovery to welcoming refugees from global conflicts to combatting climate change.”
There, Woodfin spoke about how Birmingham’s history and geography have created the perfect storm for flash flooding conditions.
“I’ve been serving as mayor for the last five years. What I didn’t know when I signed up for this job was that I would also have to compete with extreme weather events such as flash flooding,” Woodfin said. “Remember, we sit in a bowl, so we’ve already been dealing with tornados pretty much since time. But over the last two years, with these extreme weather events and the humidity in Birmingham and all these other things that converge at one time — just since January 1, everybody, we’ve had 86 water rescues in a city that’s landlocked. That’s kind of extreme when you think about it for firemen and firewomen who sign up for a job to put out fires, but they’re doing water rescues.”
Woodfin said of the city’s 27,000 inlets, 18,000 have been assessed and found to be “past their lifespan.” To repair Birmingham’s stormwater infrastructure to get it “where it needs to be” would cost roughly "half a billion dollars," he said.
The city has looked at repurposing empty lots and planting more trees, he said, but the biggest impact might come from partnering with the federal government through Joe Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.
“This bill is a once-in-a-lifetime for a city like Birmingham to get water infrastructure right, and that will be probably our main partner,” Woodfin said.
When asked how race and equity have impacted flooding in Birmingham, Woodfin discussed how he believed historical racism affected the layout of the city, leaving black neighborhoods in the worst areas for pollution and flooding.
“Race sits at the center of the city of Birmingham and has been since probably its inception,” Woodfin said. “I would dare say we’re probably the poster child for redlining neighborhoods … In the steel industry, black residents and their neighborhoods were right by these plants. So well before we talk about these extreme weather patterns, the intentional design of redlined neighborhoods by putting black residents — in a city that’s now 70% black — putting black residents near these smokestacks, living in floodplains, living in areas where your ingress and egress is surrounded by train tracks on all sides. All of this was definitely intentionally deliberate. So in the last five years, everything we do is centered around justice, racial equity.”
Woodfin touted his office’s Division of Social Justice and Racial Equity, adding that climate change “has to be a part of the conversation.”
“These extreme weather patterns are affecting those same neighborhoods I just described more so than other areas of town where they may stay on hills or heights,” he said.
He ended his remarks with a call for a nonpartisan effort to address water-related climate issues.
“Water as we know it is a basic necessity of life... It doesn’t have to be a divide on solving this issue. It doesn’t have to be Republican, Democrat, urban or rural. This is an issue we all should be behind trying to figure out how to solve, particularly on the extreme weather pattern side.”
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