Thursday, June 19, 2008

Floods in the Midwest

Once again the Midwest is inundated with water. The mighty Mississippi and its tributaries are reclaiming territory that they once carved for themselves as compensatory space for such river adjustments when necessary. This time it's necessary. Unfortunately those who occupy these pristine flood plains are once again cut off guard. Then again there may have been little that could have been done at this stage to protect property. The disruptions are enormous - life, work, food supply, school, trade and trannactions. In the next 10 - 12 years it will happen again and again. People will move back in, the levees will be repaired but not upgraded, they will clean, replace what was lost and then they will forget for the next ten years until it happens again. So much for preparedness plans and for putting these blueprints in place. Preparedness is not about documents and blueprints. It about action and knowing how to help yourself and your neighbors when no one else from the outside can reach you. Our lives have been so structured and designed to be response-dependent on elected official, federal and state apparatuses that we have forgotten how to help us; how to take action in the midst of uncertainty to mitigate the risk to which we are exposed to on a daily basis.

Medical researchers may have a lesson or two to teach us. They conduct the research and the counter research and they make the findings available to the public so the public can make informed decison. The United States Geological Soceity (USGS) and the Army Core of Engineers being public organizations have a public responsibility to conduct the research on disaster risk and vulnerability and to provide the public with the information. In a region with a storied history of flooding, little should be taken for granted. By studying snow falls, rainfall figures and matching them against the age, percolation and infiltration levels in the levees one should be able to determine and doing so on a regular basis, the potential for damage. We may not be able to protect property but we can insure against damage. Using a credit union approach, communities can pool their resources for disaster response particlaury for those who are unable to aford the market costs of insurance.Communities must insure themselves against disaster. This requires a different thinking and approach: A shift from individual to community reponse not to the disaster but to the risk. It requires reduced dependence on federal bureaucratic response to increased local community response. It also requires a shift from regional disaster management aproaches to local community responsibility because in the end its the local communities that are affected and it they who have to pick up the pieces; they who have to reconstruct their lives despite the blame and finger pointing. When the cameras are turned off and the press goes home, it is the homeowners and city managers who are left to deal with the impact.

The approach is to protect one's self and one's community aganst the risk and the bottom line is this- once one lives on a flood place with levees and subsequebtly below the high flood mark, there is risk there. It may not be the same every where and no matter how small, it exists and even against that small risk, protection is essential. All that is required for a levee to break is small percolation, and overtime, water finds a way to percolate and infiltrate. Rates at which these occur have to be measured and the results made public. Where risk is present, those at risk have a right to know and to make decisions based on that knowledge.

Sadly, many will be left to put the pieces back together on their own. It is the nature of the social relations that we have nurtured and on which we have prided ourselves - "pulling yourself up by your own bootstrap." It continues to govern our relationships and modus operandi and in the end it seems even we may have to acquire our own knowledge to make our own decisions for what is a boot without straps.

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