Julia Sanger, whose tiny ice cream shop flooded twice in two years in
Maryland's historic Ellicott City, joked darkly that the disasters left many
local business owners in need of therapy. Shops on the former mill town's
picturesque Main Street are barely back on their feet more than a year after
the second flood. Some are boarded up, and others open just a few hours a day.
Several heavily damaged buildings are due to be torn down.
"Some of my
friends down here, I know they sought professional therapy. I know there's
probably some who should have and didn't," said Sanger, whose shop got 6
feet of muddy floodwater in 2016 and 8 ft in 2018. "I drink a lot,"
she added. "I'm not going to lie. I'm definitely drinking more than I did
before." She has also moved her shop to higher ground. Worsening extreme
weather linked to climate change is creating hardships for many, from immediate
deaths and injuries to increases in asthma and heat stroke. But the
psychological trauma that often accompanies such losses is barely on the map.
anxiety, suicide and post-traumatic stress disorder tend to increase after
floods, storms, wildfires and heatwaves, according to the American Psychological
Association (APA), which represents psychologists in the United States.
"The problem with that link is it's not like so obvious. It's not like I
stick a needle in you, you feel pain right away," said Anthony Ng, former
head of the APA's caucus on climate change and mental health. "Some of
this is so insidious and gradual that people won't realize it until it's too
late. That's why it's hard for a lot of people to appreciate it."
The debate over
how to safeguard residents of picturesque Ellicott City, a tourist draw an
hour's drive north of Washington, DC, illustrates the challenges many towns are
facing as the world becomes warmer and wetter. The town was devastated in 2016
by a so-called 1,000-year flood - meaning a magnitude with a one-in-1,000
chance of occurring in any year. The Patapsco River, which runs through the
town, rose more than 13 ft in less than two hours.
Less than two
years later, a 1,000-year storm struck again, overwhelming the tributaries that
converge under the old mill town's buildings and feed into the Patapsco. Warmer
temperatures are increasing heavy downpours, and rainfall has been growing in
intensity in the Northeast, according to the government's 2018 National Climate
Assessment, risking power outages and the viability of roads and bridges.
As Ellicott City
has become more built up, floodwater flows across paved roads and rooftops,
instead of percolating down through the soil as it used to - a phenomenon known
as urban runoff, which is worsening globally as cities grow. In the wake of the
2018 floods, the county launched the Ellicott City Safe and Sound plan, which
involves demolishing some old buildings, making tunnels to carry water under
roads and clearing waterways more regularly.
Officials are also
testing a flood warning system, with emergency sirens telling people to move to
higher ground. It has caused some alarm among residents, said Amy Miller, a
social worker at the Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center. "You almost
have a panic response," said Miller, whose non-profit organization, based
in Columbia, some 8 miles (13 km) south, has provided food, shelter and support
to flood survivors. "We're basically exposing ourselves to the perceived
threat of a traumatic event."
provides 24-hour counseling to people in Ellicott City and the surrounding
rolling hills of Howard County who might be feeling suicidal. Miller has
trained farmers to watch out for each other and spot signs of danger,
particularly suicide risks. Farmers are a high risk group. They tend to live
solitary lives, have access to lethal means and face financial stress when hit
by poor weather and low prices - factors they cannot control, according to
livelihood is impacted, that causes hopelessness," Miller said. "The
hard part for farmers is they work almost 24-7, and it's really hard for them
to seek treatment." Stanford University predicted last year that a hotter
planet could lead to a surge in suicides by 2050. Its data analysis found
suicides had risen 0.7% in the United States and 2.1% in Mexico with a 1?°C
increase in monthly average temperatures.
also found - by analyzing the language used in more than a half billion Twitter
posts - depressive language increased during hot weather, suggesting worse
mental health. Keith Ohlinger, one of the Howard County farmers trained to keep
an eye out, said he was driven to the work by the suicide of a young friend who
grew up on a nearby farm, planned a career in agriculture and took her own life
last year at age 21.
He struggled this
spring with heavy rains washing away seeds and soil and leaving hay too wet to
be dried and stored for winter feeding. "Things are changing," he
said. "The earth is changing, Patterns are changing. Things are
melting." Ohlinger uses his position on the Maryland Agricultural
Commission, which advises the government on farming, and at monthly farmers
club meetings to bring up mental health, often taboo in the conservative agricultural
He said climate
change was just one more stress for farmers already worried about commodity
prices, credit, bank loans, the price of equipment and old family-run farms
being squeezed out by more and more giant residential homes known as McMansions.
"I can't fix pricing. I can't fix what the Chinese president or Donald
Trump does, but I can surely try and keep someone from killing
themselves," Ohlinger said. Not everyone in the region is willing to make
the link between mental health problems and climate change.
Global warming as
a manmade phenomenon is a politically divisive topic in the United States,
where President Donald Trump announced plans to withdraw from the Paris
agreement, a global pact to fight climate change. "You talk about global
warming, but we deal with this stuff all the time," said another Howard
County farmer, Howie Feago. "Most farmers believe it's more of an ebb and
flow. We know that the weather is going to be up and down. If you're going to
worry about global warming, you probably ought to get some other kind of job
because it will drive you nuts."- Reuters