Residents of the Catskill Mountains in southeast New York have become accustomed to repairing homes and infrastructure after flood damage where villages and hamlets dot the banks of creeks and streams that thread through the valleys. Tropical Storm Irene’s destruction is causing some to question the practicality of continued living in the area.

Recent studies have asserted that the region’s weather is getting more severe, including heavier rainfall and more frequent and intense flooding. The last three large flooding emergencies — in 1996 and 2005, and the disaster of recent days — were all considered 100-year floods, meaning that they had breached a level that had only a 1 percent chance of being exceeded in any given year.

Severe weather events of this kind are predicted by climate change models, a fact acknowledged by Alan White, executive director of the Catskill Center for Conservation and Development who says, “We have a new normal now.” This “new normal” is the key driver behind the need for adaptation planning – we can no longer rely on historical weather data as the basis for either infrastructure or emergency planning, and as a result, long-term viability of living in some areas may be drastically affected.

Environmentalists and others in the region say these developments should force a reassessment of the Catskills’ building and zoning regulations, possibly even leading to a moratorium on further construction, or even human habitation, in certain flood plains.

Local state assemblyman, Kevin A. Cahill comments, “Building on a flood plain — there ought to be some serious thinking about that. When you look around at communities with the toughest building codes, you will see that they are significantly far less hit. Common sense works.”

The ACT Climate Change Adaptation and Extreme Weather report, published in 2009, discusses the need to evaluate building codes as an adaptation strategy. “Building codes hold promise as an adaptation tool, provided that projected climate change impacts are incorporated as a risk factor during code development.”

The Climate Change Adaptation and Extreme Weather Summary Recommendations report includes a number of policy recommendations that federal and local governments can implement to reduce exposure and vulnerability to extreme weather events.