Remembering a Devastating Flood, and Preparing Immigrant Communities for Climate Change

 Remembering a Devastating Flood, and Preparing Immigrant Communities for Climate Change

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BOSTON-- At about three a.m. on May 12, 2006, Wilfred Maina Kariuki and his wife, Anne, of Lowell, Mass. were awoken by loud shouts from police and fire department officials, urging them to get out of their apartment overlooking the banks of the Merrimack River as fast as they could.

As they had been sleeping, rising floodwaters from the river had poured into their apartment complex, following days of torrential rain.

Kariuki, a father of three who emigrated with his family from Kenya 15 years ago, leapt out of bed to the sound of a police officer banging on his bedroom window.

His feet hit cold water. By then, the swollen Merrimack had already flooded the entire Sampas Pavilion where the local African community holds the popular Lowell African Festival.

Kariuki woke his wife and his 14-year-old daughter, and they ran outside to find a chaotic scene of hundreds of residents, scrambling to find their family members and half-submerged cars.


Wilfred Maina Kariuki and Anne Ndungu, a Kenyan immigrant couple that lost over $150,000 as one of the many ethnic immigrants negatively affected by the historic Lowell Flooding of 2006. PIC BY COURTESY.

"It was a true emergency," he told Ajabu News. "There was no time to pick up anything else other than your car keys."

The New England Flood of 2006, caused by over 14 inches of rain, was the worst flooding event in the Northeast since 1936. The flooding triggered evacuations of thousands of people along the Merrimack River through New Hampshire and Massachusetts.

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Some of the Apartments at the Camelot Court 1 complex overlooking the Merimack River that were damaged during the Lowell flooding of 2006.H.MAINA/AJABU AFRICA NEWS

Flood hit immigrant communities hard

Lowell, a historic mill town, is one if of the most diverse in New England, home to refugees from Cambodia, Iraq and Burma, in addition to over 7,000 African immigrants.

The floods hit immigrant families particularly hard. By the time the waters retreated, the Kariukis and dozens of other families experienced hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of damages, and a major disruption to their lives.

According to areportby the American Public Health Association (APHA), "Immigrants in disaster areas are especially vulnerable because of their immigration status, language barriers, and lack of access to resources," as well as discrimination and lack of information.

In aftermath of Lowell's flood, many African, Indian and Cambodian immigrants affected sank into a state of confusion as they struggled to find help from local authorities. Many had to bring along language interpreters in search of services, often finding it difficult to understand terms and conditions of new refinancing loan applications and other documents. Hundreds of homes were destroyed; including those belonging to many families who had to discard everything touched by water after the City announced that a burst plumbing system meant the floodwaters had been tainted with raw sewage.

According to official records from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) made available to Ajabu Africa News by Dennis W. Pinkham, the External Affairs director of FEMA Region-1 serving New England, the economic damage caused by the 2006 disaster was estimated to be around $70.4 million. Approximately 11,000 families applied for federal and state.

The Kariuki family was able to begin to rebuild their life with donations from their church, the Presbytery of Northern New England. In addition, FEMA refunded the family some costs spent renovating the condo while the American Red Cross paid for their six months' rent before they were able to return.

Still, the family lost over $150,000 in the process, and saw their insurance premiums skyrocket after the flood. The sudden increase in payments, compounded with other losses, eventually cost the Kariuki's their home.

"We tried to re-finance with the banks but none of them would agree, since the values of the condos had decreased significantly due to the water damage," Kariuki says. "It was also impossible to find a willing buyer so we had no choice but to let go."

The property was foreclosed upon.
Having no other option, the Kariukis moved into a 2-bedroom rental in the Drum Hill region of the city.

Climate change driving extreme weather, natural disasters

The Kariukis' and many other families fell victim to one of the region's worst storms in almost a century. Climate scientists agree that storms like this are becoming increasingly common due to climate change.

While scientists tend to avoid attributing an individual weather event to climate change, storm survivors like Kariuki want to warn others that storms like this are happening more often and they need to be prepared.

"This climate change issue is not joke. You won't believe how serious it is until if affects you directly," he says.

At the end of 2016, nearby Boston launched Climate Ready Boston,an initiative to develop resiliency and solutions to prepare the Boston area for climate change.

The report notes that in the Northeast, "there has already been a very large increase in the intensity of extreme rain and snow. From 1958 to 2010, there was a 70 percent increase in the amount of precipitation that fell on the days with the heaviest precipitation. This increase is greater in the Northeast than for another region of the country."

More frequent storms carrying more precipitation, like the devastating 2015 blizzards, could spell immense losses for Lowell and Boston immigrant communities, who tend to be "less involved in hazard preparedness, such as stockpiling emergency supplies and/or purchasing insurance," according to the APHA report.

The City of Lowell also has acknowledged that climate change means more damaging snow and rainstorms, and has created plans for preparing communities for future disasters. The city's "Environmental Resilience Blueprint," part of the Sustainable Lowell 2025 Plan, lays out a plan for adaptation, including "reducing the adverse impacts and severity of flood events."

In Boston, the city's location on the coast means that "rising sea levels mean that any given storm will cause more flooding in the future than it would today," according to the Climate Ready report. Severe flooding could compromise mass transit, evacuation routes, hospitals and other public services.

Many African immigrants live and work in neighborhoods most vulnerable to flooding, such as Dorchester Bay, Porzio Park, and Central Square. For example, hundreds of African immigrants who work in Boston area hospitals, finance and tech companies as well as Uber and other ride-share drivers could find themselves in a dangerous situation during a flood disaster.

Still, city leaders are confident that the area can adapt to weather the storms.

"Boston is more climate-ready today than it has ever been before," Mayor Walsh said during the report's launch at City Hall. "We have the knowledge, talent and resources to prepare our neighborhoods and businesses for climate change."

Lowell prepares for future floods and disasters

Thirty miles north in Lowell, city officials are still learning from the 2006 disaster and working to institute new measures to protect residents against future life-threatening natural disasters.

George Rose is Deputy Director of the Emergency Management Department in the City of Lowell. He says the biggest lesson from the 2006 flood was the critical importance of communication before and during an emergency.

A timely alert could have saved the Kariukis and other families thousands of dollars should they have known to evacuate with their documents and valuables ahead of time.

Lowell recently launched the Civic Ready Program online where residents can sign up for emergency alerts by text, email, or phone. In addition, the Department now has active Facebook and Twitter accounts to pass on emergency alerts.

"Communication is always the key thing. We urge you to sign up with the program and let us know the best way to reach you in case of emergency," Rose said in a phone interview. Residents can sign up and get other emergency readiness tips by visiting

The City of Lowell is now enrolled in the Hydrological Prediction Program run by the National Weather Service. This will help the city track water levels in the Merrimack and Concord Rivers during a flood, especially in the case of extended rainfall or rapid melting of the snow in the upstream New Hampshire Mountains.

The Merimack River at Sampas Pavilion. H.MAINA/AJABU AFRICA NEWS

"The service lets us know the different stages of flooding so that we can tell when to initiate emergency response," Rose says. "[The program] lets us know how many people would be affected by a flooding event and where they are."

The system can then contact people in the flood zone and "let them know when to leave, where to go, what to bring, such as diapers for small babies, important documents and other important information," he says. "This would help us tremendously to know the best time to initiate emergency response and evacuations on time were a similar disaster to strike again in future."

Learning lessons from the 2006 catastrophe, the city of Lowell is also shoring up water infrastructure.

"The new Portadam with a pump station...will help redirect any rising flood waters back into the Merrimack River," Ross says.

"We are now very confident that Lowell has become ready to deal with such natural disasters in the future," he says.

Preparing for climate challenges in the homeland

Kariuki says that after his family's devastating loss, he became deeply concerned about the effects of extreme weather on his home community in Kenya, and decided to do something about it, even though his options were limited.

Before immigrating to the United States, he and his wife Anne had witnessed massive deforestation and recurring droughts in their rural village in central Kenya, issues that have worsened since.

When they took a trip back to the four acre piece of land they still own in Kenya, the family put aside one acre where they dug out a reservoir to store water and rain when the next storm comes.

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A reservoir dug out by Wilfred Kariuki and his wife, Anne Ndung'u within their ancestral farmland in Nyeri, central Kenya to encourage locals to take corrective measures against changing climatic patterns. PIC BY COURTESY

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A section of the farm where the Kariuki's have recently planted different tress and seedlings in a re- forestation initiative. PIC BY COURTESY

He also instructed workers to plant 3,000 trees of different species on the farm.

Kariuki also encouraged others to participate in a water project started in his village, Maragima, and urged the local member of parliament, Hon. Kanini Kega, to dig similar reservoirs and plant trees where possible in order to build "insurance" for the devastating effects of climate change that have ravaged his life in the United States.

Kariuki says he is skeptical that newly elected President Donald Trump realizes the seriousness of climate change, and is concerned that Trump will let progress slip backwards, leading to possibilities of even bigger and more damaging floods and other natural disasters.

"One can only hope that they will believe that climate change is real and that man has contributed a lot of the problem, so that the government can continue to help protect the environment and reverse the trend," he says.

"I hate to imagine anyone going through what we went through," Kariuki says. "Every one of us in the entire world needs to do something, however small, to reverse the trend."