Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Flood control and unnatural disasters

Christine Klein and Sandra Zellmer recently published Mississippi River Tragedies: A Century of Unnatural Disaster (NYU Press 2014). At my request, the authors sent me this description of the book:
The book chronicles the history of the Mississippi River Basin, which drains about 40% of the continental United States. Through a series of historical vignettes, the book uncovers the nation's century-long experiment with federal flood control. With the best of intentions, we transformed natural disasters such as floods and hurricanes into "unnatural" disasters. In the words of one reviewer, the authors "have provided a thoroughly engaging account of the human contributions to so-called 'natural' disasters that reads like a good mystery novel."
As the book reveals, engineers have done astounding things to bend the Mississippi River to their will: transforming over a thousand miles of roiling current into a placid staircase of water; imprisoning the mighty flow behind walls of levees; even forcing one of the tributaries to flow uphill. But despite our best efforts to control the river, so called "natural" disasters continue to strike the Mississippi basin. Raging floodwaters decimate waterfront communities and dislodge everything in their path--homes, trees, livestock, even dozens of caskets at a time. Mississippi River Tragedies reveals that it is seductively deceptive--and dangerously misleading--to call such catastrophes "natural."
The book  highlights the historical development of a trio federal policies designed to protect the nation from floods: federal structures (such as levees and dams), federal disaster relief, and federal flood insurance.  These policies backfired. As an unintended consequence, they lured more people into harm's way by conveying  a false sense that it is safe to settle in dangerous, flood-prone areas. The book concludes with a series of recommendations--including giving rivers room to flood--to avoid yet another century of unnatural disaster.
Tomorrow we'll have a post from the authors on the historical background to the Homeowner Flood Insurance Affordability Act of 2014 (and another post here).

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