By William Becker
People everywhere are drawn to the beauty of nature. Tens of millions of us are finding, however, that getting too close can be dangerous. Take floods, for example.
More than 40 million Americans, roughly the same as the population of California, live in places at risk of flooding. More specifically, they live where there is at least a one in one-hundred chance of flooding in any given year. That doesn’t mean there will be only one flood every century. Rivers can, and often do, flood several times over a decade or two.
Because of global climate change, mega-floods are more common. These are disasters with a one-in-500 or one-in-1,000 probability of happening any year. Houston had three 500-year floods between 2015 and 2017. The United States has experienced several 1,000-year rain events in just the past three years.
In March, federal officials warned that the 2019 flood season could be the worst on record in the United States, with more than 200 million people at risk in 25 states. By mid-August, floods had caused $3 billion in property damage and three deaths in the Midwest alone. Nebraska suffered at least $1 billion in damages to 2,000 homes and 340 businesses.
These data are informative to a degree, but they don’t begin to describe what a flood is really like. The reality on the ground is ugly. Along with muddy water, floods carry toxins, snakes, sewage, dead animals, debris of all kinds including cars and dislodged homes, and even coffins and corpses exhumed by the water. You’ll have to wait until the flood subsidies before you can get back to see whether your house survived. You’ll find that everything – every piece of furniture, every rug, every mattress, ever photo album and every other possession below the high water line has been tainted by toxic water. To prevent mold, your house probably will have to be gutted down to the studs.
The post-disaster disaster comes next. Families sleep on gym floors and in cheap hotels before they are permitted to move into small trailers provided by FEMA. The collections of trailers are unofficially called “Femavilles”. You probably will wait for months before all the paperwork is processed to obtain money from the government to rebuild. You find that many of your friends in the old neighborhood are missing, having fled to another city or state, probably never to return. Some homes are so badly damaged that their owners just walked away.
If you had small businesses in the old neighborhood, they are probably gone, too. Forty percent of small businesses in a flood never reopen. As time goes on, you get impatient, even angry, to get back into a real home in time for the kids to start school or the family to enjoy a normal Christmas.
You have some decisions to make. If you are a glutton for disaster, you could rebuild in the floodplain again, assuming your community allows it. You’ll pat yourself on the back for not letting the river run you out of town, but you’ll want to keep some shovels handy to scrape the stinking muck out of your home after the next big rain or snowmelt.
You could build on a mound of dirt or on stilts if you don’t mind a house that looks like one of the Galactic Empire’s all-terrain walking tanks in Star Wars.
Second, you could rebuild somewhere in the community well away from the floodplain. It’s a smart choice, although it won’t be the same as the old neighborhood next door to friends.
If you want to keep your old social fabric intact, and if your city wants to keep from losing tax base, the third choice is to relocate all flooded homes and businesses to a new site somewhere on higher ground. This option is called a “managed retreat”. It’s difficult, like any effort to get a bunch of people to agree on anything. But you’ll replace your rotting floodplain building with a brand new one and your kids will never have to be afraid when it rains again.
Mass relocations are relatively rare in the U.S., but they have been done with mixed results. One good example is the small village of Valmeyer, Il, which was completely inundated for weeks when a levee broke during the “Great Mississippi River Flood” of 1993. Most businesses and residents rebuilt on top of a bluff high above the old city. No flood short of Noah’s will reach them. Soldiers Grove, WI, moved most of its homes and all of its businesses to a safe site after a major flood in 1978. In the process, villagers built what was believed to be the nation’s first community heated with passive solar energy. Two documentaries were filmed about it.
Today, floods are severe and common enough that groups of survivors are organizing around the country to share information, to help communities with flood recovery, and to file lawsuits against further development in floodplains. The largest of these groups, Higher Ground, orchestrated a national campaign earlier this year in which victims from 16 states swamped local, state and national politicians with videos and postcards, urging them to take steps to reduce flood damages and to do something about climate change.
What we know for sure is that floods will keep getting worse. More aging dams and levees will fail. Taxpayers will have to pay more for disaster responses and recoveries. More people will want to buy federal flood insurance (private insurers don’t offer it), even though that program has been losing money since the end of 2004. Expect higher premiums in the future.
I have spent time in many flooded communities to talk with the survivors about rebuilding sustainably. I once asked an elderly woman who had survived multiple floods what she remembered most about them. “Devilish things,” she said, shaking her head. “Devilish things.”
Whether you live in a place vulnerable to wildfires or storm surges or sea-level rise or drought or excessive heat, you too will probably experience devilish things. Maybe you already have. There’s not a lot we can do about it anymore because the ugly parts of climate change will outlive us all. They will get even uglier if we keep dumping carbon into the atmosphere. Devilish things are the price we must pay for our long complacence.