Whose Flood is it Anyway?

Written by M. Glantz. Posted in All Fragilecologies, Climate Affairs, Disasters, Environment and Society

Published on December 07, 2011 with No Comments

Floods occur on the earth’s surface in scores of different locations every year. Some cause minor damage, while others can be labeled blockbuster events. For example, consider two major flood episodes from 2011: the tens of millions of dollars in damage from the flooding in Pakistan in summer 2010 and the October floods in Thailand that were the worst in at least 50 years in that country.

October 2011 floods in Thailand

When a flood occurs, regardless of the country in which it occurs, a lot of finger-pointing usually takes place, with various elements of society and of government blaming other elements for the extensive loss of life, damage to the built environment and failure in some component of the in-place early warning system. In fact there is often enough blame to go around. A popular Roman adage related to war that has survived over 2000 years captures this reality: “Success has many fathers but failure has none.”

Rather than comment on a specific flood in a developing country to expound on the title of this editorial—Whose Flood is it Anyway?—I thought it would be interesting to review a flood that occurred in the summer of 2011 in the Upper Midwest region of the highly developed United States of America. The comments that follow were made by victims of this flood and have been taken from a New York Times article (from July 30) written by A.G. Sulzburger, “In the Flood Zone, but Astonished by High Water.” (Note: some comments have been shortened for the sake of brevity, though I’ve been careful to make sure the sentiment of each is right on target). First, some general commentary about one specific area hit hard by the flooding, Dakota Dunes, South Dakota:

“Developers transformed this mostly barren peninsula at the intersection of two rivers [the mighty Missouri and the Big Sioux] into an exclusive planned community, complete with million dollar homes and a private golf course…”. “They call it ‘The Dunes’ for a reason, the warning went as follows: ‘the rivers put the sand there and the rivers could sweep it away’.”

“Now, a little more than two decades later, the stately homes … have been evacuated and the 18th hole is six feet under water, as miles of newly built levees strain to this community from surrendering to a historic flood.”

Now for some brief comments from residents of The Dunes. Several residents made statements about their misconception of the risk and unpredictability inherent to living on a flood plain, even when such an area has been managed by scientific engineering and modern technology:

“Many residents said they never imagined this chain of events.”
“I didn’t think this [flooding] was an issue.”
“Most [people] did not take out flood insurance because they thought the Missouri had been tamed by a system of dams and reservoirs.”
“A river makes an unpredictable neighbor.”
“People revisited longstanding questions about whether government flood insurance, dams and levees encourage people to take unnecessary chances.”
“Most people don’t understand what flood risk is.”
“They assume there is a level of protection with levees and dams.”

Others believed that the managed area of the flood plain was safe because of how they choose to interpret government assurances of security and because of how their personal experiences reinforce those interpretations of security. This framing of security also influenced many individuals’ responses to the flood, especially in their feeling entitled to compensation for the government’s perceived failure to keep them safe, even after they were warned otherwise:

“If I had to do it again, I’d buy a house in the same place. The flood was an aberration.”
“Many people in these higher risk areas [lower areas like “The Dunes”] mistakenly believed that a flood could not happen more than once in a century.”
“Government flood risk maps led to a false sense of security if your location was outside the flood zone’s borders.”
“Initially developers urged homebuyers to get insurance but later dropped the advice given that the upstream dams had apparently tamed the rivers.”
“Some homeowners refused to have levees placed on their property at the government’s expense. Soon, with the threat of the flood they paid for it themselves.”
“Homeowners typically dropped the insurance after several dry years.”
“Even when the Army Corps of Engineers (ACE) warned of increased river flow and water releases from the dam, the people thought the warnings were overstated.”

“The victims of the flood who did not want to buy insurance now wanted the government to pay for the flood damage. They hoped for federal help to rebuild.”

Still others, which may be a product of human nature, chose to live with the risk because the aesthetics of living in the area of ‘The Dunes’ was seen to outweigh the risks, a decision reinforced by a frame that portrays any possible location as having inherent risks:

“Residents said they would return to their homes for a variety of reasons, especially the natural charm of the area.”
“We are staying. There is risk everywhere: there’s risk in Arizona fires, in Florida hurricanes, in California for earthquakes.”
Given the comments above, one can legitimately ask the questions about this particular flood situation to find out “Whose Flood it was?”

My thoughts:

Was it the developers (who developed an area they called The Dunes, known to have been created by sand deposits from the rivers)? Was it the Army Corps of Engineers (that built the structures that led people to believe they were protected by dams, reservoirs and levees)? Was it the government that failed to force those in the flood plain to buy flood insurance)? Was it the fault of the land-use planners (those who drew up the risk maps for the area)? Was it the fault of the local government (allowing development in a vulnerable intersection of two major rivers)? Was it the fault of the science educational system (that did not teach people how to interpret probabilities)? Was it the fault of the homeowners as victims (because they did not learn about the risks of hazards in their community or because they seemed to have had a blind faith in engineering that would protect them)? Was it a problem of human nature (risks be damned; I want to live here because it is so beautiful)?

blame others.

The fact is that in every flood situation there is a mix of responsible parties with some bearing large portions of the blame and others less. The tendency, however, has been to focus on one party to take the lion’s share of the blame, to be a proverbial scapegoat for the flood-related loss of life and property. Doing so, however, is unlikely to minimize the risk to the hazard, though it does make some people and some agencies feel better that they found someone else to blame… until the floods return again and the blame game starts anew.

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