Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Americans at war with nature

Since World War II and perhaps even earlier, Americans have been seemingly brainwashed into believing we have to war with everything.  There has been the unsuccessful war on poverty, the unsuccessful war on drugs, the unsuccessful war on cancer and recently along the Mississippi we have seen another battle lost in our war against nature, or in this specific case: a river.   

The Mississippi has proven once again to be an adversary that the United States and its citizens cannot beat (similar in a way to fighting a conventional war against an idea like terrorism or fighting a war against plants like the opium poppy, marijuana or coca). An early victory by the Mighty Mississip’ occurred in 1927.  The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 displaced 700,000 people.  Another battle lost by America was the Great Flood of 1993.  Yet, we have rebuilt houses again and again and have built higher and higher levees in the hope that it can stop a force of nature, a flooding river. 

You have to admire the heart of the people who keep rebuilding along the Mississippi, but once you wade in deeper you have to get fairly pissed off at those people.  You hear people say, “I couldn’t afford flood insurance and now I lost everything.”  No matter how heartless it sounds the question has to be asked: “You knew the river flooded, why should I feel sorry for you for taking a calculated risk and losing?”  No one feels sorry for people who lose their shirt on other risky gambles like letting it all ride on black at the roulette table, why should I feel any worse because some person chose to live next to a river that floods and either didn’t get flood insurance or wasn’t able to afford flood insurance? To top it off, FEMA and other federal organizations help rebuild these communities and levees and that money comes from you and me.  Our money is taken to rebuild communities that—almost guaranteed—will be flooded again.  It’s a river; rivers flood and levees seem to break quite often.  So basically our federal government is reinforcing generations of bad decisions and allowing them to continue.   

The question remains: isn’t there a better solution to this problem than levees and flood insurance?  Every time a town is destroyed by a flood, the actuaries crunch out the numbers and come up with new, higher premiums; levees get built higher, bigger, and stronger which seemingly causes more catastrophic flooding when they fail.  My question is why fight the flooding, why not work with it? Doesn’t flooding ultimately deposit new nutrient rich silt on farmlands?  If flooding were allowed to occur along large stretches of the river, wouldn’t that dissipate the effects of the flood, and lead to lower flood waters in general? (I admit I am no flooding expert and this last supposition could be wrong).   

Well how could we do this?  How could we build homes and communities that to borrow a hippie phrase, “live in harmony with nature?”   Hmm, let’s think about this. What is the major issue with flooding? The water rises but the buildings don’t, thus they flood.  There is the answer: floating buildings!  A building that could float would cost more up front, but in theory flood insurance (yes you would still need it as a precaution) premiums would be significantly reduced so you make the cost difference up on the back end.   

Could it be done? Yes it can be done.  Asian communities have been build on stilted or floating platforms in areas that are dry are only part of the year.  And people like the Dutch, as close to masters as there can be in fighting water  (yes, even they haven’t won the war) have begun to look at the feasibility of large scale floating villages.  Some existing floating housing in the Netherlands even “move[s] up and down with the water level of the river.”  And there are even patents on file here in America for the concept.  Seriously, how hard could it be to adapt/modify these concepts to work in the Mississippi floodplain?  Granted it might not be feasible for large factories (then again there is a possibility it could be) but small towns and rural communities that seem to take the brunt of these floods could be made impervious to flooding, saving my money and saving me from hours of TV footage of people crying because they lost everything they owned.   

What happened to American ingenuity and creativity…did we decide to lock it away while we fight hundreds of “wars on xyz” which we can never win?  Better solutions exist than a higher levee or another botched FEMA recovery effort.  Why don’t we try them?