Thursday, May 19, 2011

Never ending flood suffering. A recipe.

This flood is causing terrible human suffering and economic loss.  In southern Illinois, thousands are in shelters, many here in Carbondale.

It's easy to focus on that suffering now, and talk about simple short-term fixes.  But only a sober view of this disaster will prevent more of the same. 

Yesterday USA Today did a nice job of interviewing scientists and policy experts, and put together a good article on how we can move forward after this devastating flood.

The New York Times has done a terrible job, running both vapid, poorly written "human interest" stories and a pointless op-ed piece by David Welky last week.  No science, no policy, no real reporting on why this, or any other flood, happens.

If our media and political leaders won't tell people why these things happen, we're doomed to witness them again and again.  The human and economic costs are horrible, and not sustainable by any measure.

More of the same is a certain recipe for continued loss and suffering.

USA Today recently ran an op-ed article by Republican Representative Jo Anne Emerson. 

I opposed the destruction of Birds Point because the authority to do so discounts the well-being of Missourians as well as the ability of levees at Cairo, Ill., to hold back floodwaters. The possibility that blowing up the levee saved others in the system is cold comfort to Missourians who also have a right to flood protection.

Returning the river to its natural state represents a high ideal for environmentalists who live in safer places, but reducing flood protection is an unthinkable violation of property rights and liberty for Americans who have lived beside the river for more than a century.

Rep. Emerson gives us exactly the argument that will insure more flood loss and human suffering.

Her constituents in the Bird Point - New Madrid Floodway knew, or should have known that it was a bought and paid for component in a massive emergency flood control system.  A system mostly paid for by people living outside the floodplain in "safer" places.  A system that has given untold economic benefits to the people living in it by protecting their land from flooding for over 80 years.

That Floodway was specifically designed for the monster flood we now see, and operated by policy, not politics.

Rep. Emerson and others know that, and so should the people living there.  She, and other leaders, should explain the hazards and true cost of living in flood prone areas, but instead make political hay.  This is irresponsible because it will inevitably lead to more loss and human suffering from floods.   Instead of calling for a reevaluation of the levee system and the human settlement in the floodway, she calls for a rebuilding of exactly the same system, and points a finger at "environmentalists."

And calls operation of the Floodway a "taking" of private property.  It is easy now to say these things to people who see themselves as victims of unjust federal policy.  Not so easy to stop it from happening again.

There are victims in other places here:  The massive big river flood control works on the Lower Mississippi, including levees, pumps, access roads, bank protection and never-ending federally-subsidized maintenance, keep flood off cropland, but they significantly increase stages in larger floods.

So they make the floods higher, and more damaging, in other places.  That's one reason the Birds Point - New Madrid Floodway was constructed.

UPDATE:  Anne Jefferson has posted an excellent piece on levees and flood control.

When the Birds Point levee was blown up (according to design, policy, and plan) in 1937, stage at Cairo dropped seven feet.

Several of my neighbors here west of Carbondale lost the contents of their first floors as the Big Muddy River (a tributary to the Mississippi) backed up to to a stage nearly three feet above the previous record.  Surfaces I suspect haven't seen much water since the end of the great Pleistocene floods were inundated.

I agree with Rep. Emerson that there has been a "taking of private property" in this flood.  Not from her people in the Floodway, who have enjoyed vast economic benefits, and were living on land with deeded, paid for flood easements.

That "taking" was like giving somebody $10 and asking for $1 back.  Eighty years later.

The taking has been from thousands of others, well outside the Mississippi River's floodplain, damaged in this flood by unnaturally high stages.  And from federal taxpayers.

The huge federal flood control systems along our big rivers are the very definition of pork barrel politics.  They pay gigantic benefits to those living in the floodplain.  The contractors who build them, and their local employees, make money.  When commercial development follows higher levees, land values skyrocket.  Federal tax dollars further subsidize flood insurance, because the commercial insurance market never will; it's too risky.  Nobody could afford the true cost, so taxpayers living on high ground subsidize it.  And also the costs to fight floods and then clean up afterwards.

No private insurance company will offer insurance for homes in a floodplain.  Shouldn't that tell us something?  Where are market forces in this?  Why don't we see private mainline levees along the Lower Mississippi?

In this time of Republican calls for smaller government and less spending, this big entitlement, the "right" to protection from floods seems to be off the table.  And no talk of "free market" solutions; it's just not economically sustainable to protect cropland with huge levees along our big rivers.  It requires massive federal subsidy.

Nicholas Pinter's 2005 Science piece remains a defining paper on this topic.  The development behind federal levees in the St. Louis region he describes is shocking, and when that land, flooded in 1993 and now covered with $billions in development, goes underwater again, the destruction will dwarf that we're seeing at Birds Point.

Top illustration; turn of the century drainage project in southern Illinois; below, figure from Pinter, 2005.

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