Disastrous floods. We experienced them back in December in the Pacific Northwest. Now, more recently, devastating floodwaters submerged parts of the Midwest.
We know that these kinds of rain storms and flooding will become more frequent and severe with global warming. How can communities prepare? What lessons can we learn?
One thing is certain: while engineered solutions like levees are necessary in some places, for the most part they are costly and can create a false sense of security. Levees can encourage unwise floodplain development and increase flood damage costs, while also destroying some of the natural features that prevent downstream flooding, as well as river access and fish and wildlife habitat.
Take the Missouri River. In 1993, the Missouri River flooded, in what local residents came to call the "Great Flood," one of the most destructive in the history of the Mississippi River basin. 70,000 people were evacuated, 50,000 homes damaged, nearly 50 people killed and a total cost in damage exceeding $16 billion dollars.
Following the floods in 1993, American Rivers helped convince the Federal Emergency Management Agency to use some of the disaster relief funds to help families move out of harm's way. The agency worked in nine states to move roughly 10,000 homes and businesses to higher ground and to restore floodplains so that they could act as natural buffers. One village downriver from St. Louis picked up and moved two miles away to a site 400 feet above the Mississippi floodplain. When another flood hit the region two years later, these people were high and dry.
But this example of smart rebuilding is the exception, not the rule. In the very area that in 1993 was under 10 feet of water, developers have built strip malls, office parks and 28,000 new homes! In the St. Louis area, there's been more building on the floodplain since 1993, than in its entire prior history.
The victims here are the families that invested their life savings in these homes, believing the promise of developers and local elected officials that they were safe. These false promises continue, and we owe the families in America's river communities better.
We can't rely on the engineered fixes of the past. While levees will still play a role in flood management, we need to focus on common-sense, cost-effective natural flood protection solutions like restoring wetlands, keeping people out of harm's way in the first place, and allowing rivers to follow natural, meandering channels.
Our approach must be to work with nature and not against it. Working with nature, we can have clean, healthy rivers that make communities more resilient, more able to withstand droughts and floods in the years to come.
Image credit::US Coast Guard News, Missouri Flood Relief