By Patrick Rogers
Sky Opening, a new sculpture embedded in the woods of northern Michigan, is as stark and dramatic as its name sounds. A visitor approaching from an old logging road that leads through pine trees as tall and straight as telephone poles is suddenly confronted by a stab of light and air that slices through the dark shade of the forest. Rising from the ground in a narrow clearing are dozens of tree trunks. They range in height from just about eye level to 90 feet tall, all sliced at an angle and bloodied with the red flagging paint used by loggers. Together, these 150 trees form a ceremonial entry that swoops toward the ground and then rises back up to the treetops and the welcoming sky.
Like all the sculptures by Bay Area artists Mary O'Brien and Daniel McCormick, Sky Opening is a visually arresting act of environmental remediation. "We've been involved in environmental restoration long enough to know that the science and engineering can be brutal," said O'Brien. "Our belief is that it doesn't have to look brutal."
Mary O'Brien and Daniel McCormick working on "Line of Defense" in Venice, Louisiana.M. Verdin
McCormick, who studied with James Turrell (an icon of the Land Art movement), and O'Brien, a University of California, Berkeley–trained sculptor, are deeply committed to conservation. Their large-scale sculptures are often made of organic materials that will blend into their surroundings over time. In landscapes ranging from Nevada's desert riverbeds to Louisiana's flooded marshes, their sculptures buttress riverbanks and shelter wetlands from erosion with wattles of cottonwood that do double duty as nesting sites for migratory birds.
The duo's grand entrance into the boreal forest in northern Michigan is the first step in the planned clearing and replanting of 10 wooded acres owned by the Interlochen Academy of Arts. This forest was once a mix of conifers and hardwood trees such as maple and ash and home to birds like the Kirtland's warbler, one of North America's rarest species. Not anymore. The industrial farming of nonnative trees, such as Scotch pine, has robbed the land of sunlight, water and windborne seeds needed for a diversity of plant and animal life. The dry soil under the thick mattress of pine needles doesn't support new growth. The only remedy now is to gradually rid the land of the pines and allow a mix of native species to return.
Sky Opening starts the process with an artistic statement. "That is the whole point of this piece," said Interlochen's director for visual arts, Mindy Ronayne, who was instrumental in bringing O'Brien and McCormick to the school's campus. "A clearcut is painful to see, but Dan and Mary make you look up at the height of the tress and the sun. They make you realize how bright the sun is compared to the deep shade of the forest, and to wonder how that has happened here."
In the bayous of Louisiana, where the land is slipping into the sea at a rate of a football field an hour, bald cypress trees act as buffers against storm surges and sea-level rise. Here, the artists collaborated with oil and gas industry workers, boat captains, hunters and fishermen to help defend the trees from damage by boats and nutrias, invasive rodents with a voracious appetite for cypress saplings. Repurposed crab cages protect the young trees from being eaten by nutrias, while tall poles of native river cane topped with colorful pennants alert boaters to the vulnerable saplings' presence in shallow flooded fields, some of which were former cow pastures.
"Line of Defense," 2014, Venice, Louisiana.Mary O'Brien and Daniel McCormick
"We have about 50 trees still there, now strong enough to withstand the nutrias," said O'Brien. "It's just a small version of what's needed down there, where the state is saying to plant trees like crazy. A drop in the bucket. But we have the community involved."
The sculptures take time to do their jobs, and community buy-in is important. William Fox, a curator at the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno, knows O'Brien and McCormick from their work on five sculptures set in Nevada riverbeds. As Fox puts it, "Art is how you build that culture of caring for place. It takes people knowing the place and telling stories about it. It means having a connection. And Mary and Dan bring people to those places."
"Woven Flood Plain Wall," 2014, on Nevada's Carson River. Mary O'Brien and Daniel McCormick
In the end, that matters more to the artists than making a permanent mark on the landscape. O'Brien said others in the art world don't always understand what they're doing and will ask how it feels to have their art disappear. "Our work isn't a bronze in the museum, I tell them, but it doesn't disappear. It kicks off the restoration cycle."
And sometimes, McCormick added, "it's a 100-year cycle."
Avian Habitat Resource Sculpture, 2015, McCarren Ranch Preserve, Patrick, Nevada.Mary A. O'Brien
Reposted with permission from our media associate onEarth.
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Kevin T. Smiley
When hurricanes and other extreme storms unleash downpours like Tropical Storm Beta has been doing in the South, the floodwater doesn't always stay within the government's flood risk zones.
New research suggests that nearly twice as many properties are at risk from a 100-year flood today than the Federal Emergency Management Agency's flood maps indicate.
Flooding Outside the Zones<p>About <a href="https://furmancenter.org/files/Floodplain_PopulationBrief_12DEC2017.pdf" target="_blank">15 million</a> Americans live in FEMA's current 100-year flood zones. The designation warns them that their properties face a 1% risk of flooding in any given year. They must obtain flood insurance if they want a federally ensured loan – insurance that helps them recover from flooding.</p><p>In Greater Houston, however, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1539-6924.2012.01840.x" target="_blank">47% of claims</a> made to FEMA across three decades before Hurricane Harvey were outside of the 100-year flood zones. Harris County, recognizing that FEMA flood maps don't capture the full risk, now <a href="https://www.hcfcd.org/floodinsurance" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">recommends that every household</a> in Houston and the rest of the county have flood insurance.</p><p>New risk models point to a similar conclusion: Flood risk in these areas outstrips expectations in the current FEMA flood maps.</p><p>One of those models, from the <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/2020-national-flood-risk-assessment-highlights/" target="_blank">First Street Foundation</a>, estimates that the number of properties at risk in a 100-year storm is 1.7 times higher than the FEMA maps suggest. Other <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aaac65" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">researchers</a> find an even higher margin, with 2.6 to 3.1 times more people exposed to serious flooding in a 100-year storm than FEMA estimates.</p>
What FEMA’s Flood Maps Miss<p>Understanding why areas outside the 100-year flood zones are flooding more often than the FEMA maps suggest involves larger social and environmental issues. Three reasons stand out.</p><p>First, some places rely on relatively old FEMA maps that don't account for recent urbanization.</p><p>Urbanization matters because impervious surfaces – think pavement and buildings – are not effective sponges like natural landscapes can be. Moreover, the process for updating floodplain maps is locally variable and can take years to complete. Famously, New York City was updating its maps when Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012 but hadn't finished, meaning flood maps in effect <a href="https://projects.propublica.org/nyc-flood/" target="_blank">were from 1983</a>. FEMA is required to assess whether updates are needed every five years, but the <a href="https://www.fema.gov/cis/nation.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">majority of maps</a> <a href="https://www.oig.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/assets/2017/OIG-17-110-Sep17.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are older</a>.</p><p>Second, binary thinking can lead people to an underaccounting of risk, and that can mean communities fail to take steps that could protect a neighborhood from flooding. The logic goes: if I'm not in the 100-year floodplain, then I'm not at risk. Risk perception <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/ab195a" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> backs this up. FEMA-delineated flood zones are the major factor shaping flood mitigation behaviors.</p><p>Third, the era of climate change scuttles conventional assumptions.</p><p>As the planet warms, extreme storms are becoming <a href="https://nca2018.globalchange.gov/" target="_blank">more common and severe</a>. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase at a high rate, computer models suggest that the chances of a severe storm dropping 20 inches of rain on Texas in any given year will increase from about 1% at the end of the last century to 18% at the end of this one, a chance of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1716222114" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">once every 5.5 years</a>. So far, <a href="https://www.rstreet.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/195.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">FEMA hasn't taken into account the impact climate change is having</a> on extreme weather and sea level rise.</p>
Racial Disparities in Flooding Outside the Zones<p>So, who is at risk?</p><p>Years of research and evidence from storms have highlighted social inequalities in areas with a high risk of flooding. But most local governments have less understanding of the social and demographic composition of communities that experience flood impacts outside of flood zones.</p><p>In analyzing the damage from Hurricane Harvey in the Houston area, I found that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aba0fe" target="_blank">Black and Hispanic residents disproportionately experienced flooding</a> in areas beyond FEMA's 100-year flood zones.</p><p>With the majority of flooding from Hurricane Harvey occurring outside of 100-year flood zones, this meant that the overall impact of Harvey was racially unequal too.</p><p>Research into where flooding occurs in Baltimore, Chicago and Phoenix points to some of the potential causes. <a href="https://www.nap.edu/read/25381/chapter/4#16" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In Baltimore and Chicago</a>, for example, aging storm and sewer infrastructure, poor construction and insufficient efforts to mitigate flooding are part of the flooding problem in some predominantly Black neighborhoods.</p>
What Can Be Done About It<p>Better accounting for those three reasons could substantively improve risk assessments and help cities prioritize infrastructure improvements and flood mitigation projects in these at-risk neighborhoods.</p><p>For example, First Street Foundation's risk maps account for <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/flood-model-methodology_overview/" target="_blank">climate change</a> and present <a href="https://floodfactor.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ratings</a> on a scale from 1 to 10. FEMA, which works with communities to update flood maps, is <a href="https://www.fema.gov/media-library-data/1521054297905-ca85d066dddb84c975b165db653c9049/TMAC_2017_Annual_Report_Final508(v8)_03-12-2018.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">exploring rating systems</a>. And the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine recently <a href="https://www.nationalacademies.org/news/2019/03/new-report-calls-for-different-approaches-to-predict-and-understand-urban-flooding" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">called for a new generation of flood maps</a> that takes climate change into account.</p><p>Including recent urbanization in those assessments will matter too, especially in fast-growing cities like Houston, where <a href="https://authors.elsevier.com/a/1boBRyDvMFW6W" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">386 new square miles</a> of impervious surfaces were created in the last 20 years. That's greater than the land area of New York City. New construction in one area can also <a href="https://scalawagmagazine.org/2018/01/city-in-a-swamp-as-houston-booms-its-flood-problems-are-only-getting-worse/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">impact older neighborhoods downhill</a> during a flood, as some Houston communities discovered in Hurricane Harvey.</p><p>Improving risk assessments is needed not just to better prepare communities for major flood events, but also to prevent racial inequalities – in housing and beyond – from <a href="https://www.npr.org/2019/03/05/688786177/how-federal-disaster-money-favors-the-rich" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">growing</a> after the unequal impacts of disasters.</p>
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