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Published: Friday, 5/11/2001

Testing the waters and tempting fate

BY RALPH JOHNSON

From the standpoint of the federal bureaucrat sitting in Washington, it all seems simple enough: The federal taxpayers ought not to have to make repeated emergency payments to communities that simply refuse to modify their ways.

That has been The Blade's editorial stance, too. When hurricanes wrack the coastal areas of Florida and other southeastern states, the feds rush in to help, quite aware of the political facts of life. The last presidential election was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court, which in fact, if not in law, decided that a razor-thin popular vote margin gave George W. Bush the electoral votes of Florida - and the White House.

Florida is one of the megastates whose electoral votes really count. So is California, plagued by all kinds of disasters - brush fires, mudslides, and earthquakes. However, developers continue to build near major faults. Earthquakes and hurricanes are somewhat less predictable than river floods, and fortunately for those two populous states, seem to occur less often.

The mighty Mississippi, on the other hand, reclaims its bottom land whenever the right combination of circumstances occurs: “abnormal” precipitation, sudden winter or spring thaws, and the steady encroachment of man on the floodplain.

Old Man River has a way of striking back. It should not be surprising. The first European explorers to see this stream marveled at “a mighty flood” extending as far as 60 miles on each side of the river, with only the tops of trees to be seen. The last time we saw such a sight was in 1993. It rained for six months, and the upper Mississippi took a mighty toll in property, though claiming fewer lives (47) than many disasters.

In 1927 the whole river went on a rampage that claimed 313 lives, forced 325,554 people to be evacuated (as against 85,000 in 1993), and did some $2.9 billion in damage (1993 dollars). However, the property losses and damage in the 1993 flood were somewhere between $10 billion and $12 billion. Many homes, barns, and other modern structures were swept away, while, ironically, old brick warehouses along the Illinois River, also in flood, withstood that long watery siege.

The Lower Mississippi was cosseted with levees and flood walls after the 1927 disaster. It is harder to do that in the upper Mississippi, and it would be an ecological and tourism disaster if that were done. The diking of the lower Mississippi causes more water to run off faster, causing the Louisiana delta to disappear, as John M. Barry, author of a book on the 1927 flood, put it, “at a rate from 25 to 35 square miles a year - a football field every 15 to 20 minutes.” It is also polluting a growing dead zone of oxygen-deficient water in the Gulf of Mexico because of fertilizer runoff.

The city of Davenport has been roundly criticized by federal officials, particularly Joe Allbaugh, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and many other observers, for trying to use the river as a civic asset rather than to simply wall it off with high levees.

Mayor Phil Yerington of Davenport has fought back briskly, scoffing at the notion: “Just build a flood wall. Your problems will be solved.” The city, he said, turned down federal aid for a flood wall because the cost would exceed the value of the land it would protect. Much of the flood damage was done by backed-up sewers and high water seeping under roadways because of the massive pressure such a wall of water creates. Many flood victims lived as much as a third of a mile away from the river. “In fact, most victims of the flooding cannot even see the river from their front doors.”

Flood walls merely divert water. It has to go someplace. In many areas along the upper Mississippi, at such places as LaCrosse, Wis., where three rivers come together, there are massive areas of floodplain and wetland that are ecologically important to wildlife and which serve as a natural sponge. Winnipeg barricaded itself against a flood on the Red River of the North some years ago, but the result was disastrous to smaller communities and farms along the rampaging river.

You pays your money, and you takes your choice. River communities could be moved farther away and farther uphill, leaving only those that sit on bluffs. The cost would be incomprehensible. Or you can try to make the Mississippi and its major tributaries a series of impoundments such as the Ohio River largely has become. That would cost a high price in tangibles and intangibles, too.

The climate has been more unpredictable and subject to more violent occurrences in recent years, a phenomenon some scientists believe may be the result of global warming. Whether that judgment is warranted may be the subject of vigorous debate. However, there is no question that the impact of mankind on the river basin has played the major role in the making of flood disasters. Diked rivers in China have become virtual aqueducts, and the results of flooding when their levees are breached have caused catastrophic loss of life. A cosseted river lifts itself by its own bootstraps. We haven't several thousand years of human intervention along American rivers as yet; rather, it has been a period of less than 200 years since Americans began to “engineer” rivers.

Ironically, the Middle West, which went strongly for the Bush election ticket, now is getting a good taste of just how much regard the GOP has for this region of the country. In that respect, Mr. Allbaugh has done us a useful service.

Ralph Johnson is a retired senior associate editor of The Blade.



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