After the massive flood of 1927, when the Mississippi River took the lives of up to 1,000 people and caused a huge amount of property damage, American politicians in Congress debated a public policy question which was "What should be done to prevent a reoccurance?" The answer was the passage of a new law in 1928 that authorized HUGE expenditures of public tax dollars by the U. S. Army Corp of Engineers primarily to design a method of controlling and preventing flooding by the Mississippi River. In the ensuing decades after this law, the Corp of Engineers undertook a public works project of major proportions to construct about 2,200 miles of levees, floodgates, and other systems along the Mississippi River, all with the express purpose of preventing any future flooding of similar proportions as the 1927 flood.
We are now 83 years since the Congress passed that 1928 law and began a battle to tame the "Father of Waters." And today, we are seeing the results in front of our very own eyes of the outcome of spending massive amounts of tax dollars for nearly a century to prevent a reoccurance of a flood like the 1927 flood. As citizens, it is imperative to ask ourselves, and our government, was it "wise" or "foolish" to have devoted the resources we have for such a long time to this project? Or was (or is) there a better answer?
Clearly, the flood we are seeing today appears to be greater than the 1927 flood, as measured by river crests. But floods vary in size. Some will be smaller, some larger. And nothing says the flood of 2011 is the largest possible flood that can ever occur. What is clear is that after all the dollars spend, years devoted to the project, and all the efforts to prevent flooding, we have not tamed Old Man River all that much. What we see is that factually, whenever a record flood occurs, equal to or greater than the 1927 flood, the flooding will still be massive and all the efforts to control the flooding will not prevent huge property losses and extreme economic disruptions. About the best we can hope for is that major loss of life can be reduced or prevented.
In fact, currently for the first time ever, the Corp has been forced by the sheer volume of flood water coming down the river to open all three natural floodways that the Mississippi River would use IF THERE WERE NO FLOOD CONTROL STRUCTURES! The Bird's Point floodway is a competely uncontrolled release of flood water as the Corp simply blew up the levee and let the water go unrestrained. The Bonnet Carre control point is not fully open, but does not have very many of its floodgates still shut. And while the Morganza floodway is to be only about 22% open for now, it is very possible that more gates may have to be opened. What is clearly true is that if ENOUGH water comes down the river, the Corp simply has no choice but to open every control structure it has in place and let out as much water as possible. That is not "controlling" or "preventing" flooding; it is instead an admission that once the flooding is great enough, we are simply unable to control the river. Instead, we have to get out of the way and let the river go where it would go if we had no flood control.
And what point is it when the river cannot be controlled and the Corp is forced to blow up levees, open all floodways, and just let the water go? About the same point where it was in 1927!! So what, if anything, have we accomplished for the 80 plus years of spending tax payer dollars in order to prevent another 1927 type flood? The answer is "NOTHING" when it comes to a 1927 or greater level flood event. And unfortunately, there will be such events from time to time.
If nothing whatsoever had been spent for "flood control" but instead we had spent our dollars relocating people and buildings OUT of the flood prone areas for the past 83 years, I feel we could have removed a vast amount of the people and properties from the river's natural flood path. That would have been the smart decision instead of one that attempted the impossible--to tame the Mississippi River.
Since we have this year's massive flooding, it is obvious we will once again see an outcry to the politicians for MORE money and resources to be poured into the task of building still more levees, flood control structures, etc. in an even greater effort to reduce flooding. WhY? Because people want to live jam up against the river and they don't want there to be any risk of harm in doing so. That makes NO SENSE whatsoever.
I like to use the absurd example of scraping off the lava from Mt. St. Helens and building a new city on its slopes, in the foolish belief that "it won't happen again." (And I suspect if we asked them to, the Corp would gladly design and build a "lava wall" to block the lava flow.) It makes no sense to allow anything of serious value to be located within a flood prone area. Our government came to this conclusion in 1973, when it created a national flood insurance program. When that program was created, it mandated every flood prone area in American was to be mapped and no new constrution was to be allowed in any floodway. Construction in a flood zone that was not in the direct floodway had to also be elevated at least 1 foot above the 100 year flood level.
After Katrina, flood elevations were recalculated, building codes were changed, and insurance rates were adjusted for the greater risk that had been miscalculated before. This is what needs to happen after this disaster. We now know flooding greater than all historical records can and will occur plus we have a better idea of the magnitude of the flooding. We need to rethink the wisdom of allowing people to live in any flood prone area. Frankly, that is what the government intended in 1973 but humans have resisted that public policy and attempted to thwart that principle in the 38 years since. We have to stop that foolishness NOW.
In Christchurch, New Zealand, after the massive earthquake recently, the decision was made by the government to MOVE the entire downtown business district about 10 miles away from the epicenter. Duh! What a smart idea!!! Yes, it will cost billions to do that. But it costs billions in an attempt to building levees and flood structures on the Mississippi to prevent a 1927 style flooding (which did not work.)
What should be allowed in a flood prone area, if people, houses, cities, etc. should not be allowed? Only things which have less financial loss in the event of a flood. Agricultural operations, for example, are acceptable. So are wildlife sanctuaries, hunting or recreational areas, open space, etc. That is not to say flooding will not cause losses to these type uses. But there is a way to eliminate most of the cost to taxpayers when a flood impacts these kinds of uses.
If the government "bought up" all the land and property in the affected flood areas, emptied it of people and buildings via relocation, then offered the land for lease (as 16th section land is leased today for the schools) with the stipulation that all risk of loss from flooding is assumed by the farmer, hunter, or other party leasing the land, anyone renting the land would know what they faced and pay a price for the land that reflected that risk. And if they chose to do anything that invested dollars in the land, such as planting crops, they would do so under the knowledge they might lose everything with zero compensation.
Here is a map of the Morganza "natural floodway" that the Mississippi River would be following in any major flood if there were no flood control structures in place (or if the Morganza spillway is open as it now is.) http://media.nola.com/environment/photo ... 27ae41.jpg
This is the path the river followed for centuries before we tried to tame it with flood control structures. If the government "bought up" all the land you see colored on this map and simply controlled the leasing of that land to hunters, farmers, or others, it would make Lousianna one of the greatest outdoor recreation paradises on the planet and forever preserve the natural habitat. It could be the Alligator National Park or whatever! Then whenever it was needed to flood the land, no one would be living it its path, no one would lose a home, and no public dollars for disaster assistance would be spent. Plus we would not need to keep spending dollars trying to tame the river.
There is plenty of land in Lousianna for everyone living in the flood path to relocate and never have to leave the state. People who were "bought out" by the government could accept the relocation benefits (moving costs, down payment assistance, etc.) and use their money for their original property sold to the government to purchase something elsewhere that is NOT in a flood area!
I feel it is time we asked ourselves and our government to "rethink" the wisdom of allowing anyone to rebuild or reocccupy the land in the natural flood path of the river. And it is also time to ask ourselves if trying to build yet larger, more complex levees or other flood control systems is practical. Personally, I don't think it is a good use of tax dollars.
I will close by saying this. First, I applaud the Corp for the astoundingly good way they have managed this disaster. This is a testimony to the caliber of the Corp staff. They are making some very hard decisions but are doing it in an effective and sensible way to cause the least harm and protect the most lives. Thank you for that!
Second, although the thrust of this post is to point out the failure of the flood control work done so far to prevent flooding when record floods occur (which is clearly evident), that is NOT an attempt to blame the Corp for this failure. There are many factors, including lack of money and resources, that have prevented having a better system in place. I understand that.
Third, even though the flood control structures fail to prevent flooding when record floods occur, that does NOT mean the structures are not effective on smaller, but still major, floods. Clearly over the decades these structures have been in place, when smaller floods have occured, the structures have prevented or limited flooding very well. So, they have not been a "total waste" of taxpayer dollars in that sense. But, as I stated, the goal was to prevent flooding when a 1927 style flood occured so by that measure, we still fall short even though good flood prevention does occur if there are lesser floods.
I do see that the benefits of these structures when smaller floods occur is considerable. Thus, we need to maintain what we already have; just not expand into a bolder, bigger "tame the river" project. However, it is that very benefit that encourages people to "move in" to the flood prone areas, as they consider them "safe." We have to reverse that sort of thinking and, as with Mt. St. Helens, educate people to the fact that all the engineering and public works projects in the world, regardless of size, are woefully insufficient to withstand the powerful forces of Mother Nature. We have to educate Americans to the fact that the only safe places are those out of harms way...not in the path of harm's way!