Man-Made or Natural Disaster?

By Jane Preyer and Tim Searchinger | The Christian Science Monitor, October 14, 1999 | Go to article overview
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Man-Made or Natural Disaster?


Jane Preyer and Tim Searchinger, The Christian Science Monitor


The vivid scenes of flooded towns, farms, and factories in North Carolina, along with reports of record flood levels that closed down the eastern third of the state, may convey an impression that there is little people could have done to stave off the devastation caused by hurricane Floyd.

These scenes are a reminder of the 1993 flood disaster in the upper Midwest, and the satellite photograph that showed most of a five-state region had become like a great lake. Again, many held the view that no matter where people built, they could not have avoided the 1993 flood.

But in most floods, the overwhelming majority of damages occur in floodplains that are physically distinct and obvious lowland river valleys.

The truth is that the estimated $16 billion in damages in the 1993 Midwestern flood was mostly limited to structures directly within the floodplain. Structures built at least a few feet up the bluffs escaped damage.

Likewise, when the hurricane Floyd flood analysis is complete, it's likely that most of the flooded structures and farms also flooded repeatedly in smaller and more common floods. North Carolina is no stranger to serial storm events with potential to cause flooding in low-lying areas.

Three years ago, Hurricane Fran caused flooding in many of the same places affected by the flooding today.

This time, it was two hurricanes followed by a large rain system that dumped two feet of rain on parts of eastern North Carolina over a three-week period.

The issue isn't whether we're dealing with an unusual storm event, but what the risk is of flood damage from a series of storms that saturate soils and produce overland flows that damage crops, homes, industries, and waste-water treatment plants, and unleash pollutants.

In the case of the North Carolina floods, the old maxim holds true: Floods are natural events, but flood damages are human events.

We need to face the fact that when homes, farms, or businesses are built in floodplains or wetlands, these investments are at high risk of flood. When animal-factory farms or businesses with toxic chemicals locate in flood-prone areas, they pose a risk to the environment and the public health of communities downstream.

North Carolina now faces the very real problem of contaminated drinking water supplies and threats to valuable coastal ecosystems that support tourism and fisheries.

So how did the Midwest respond to the flood damages and what lessons can North Carolina learn from the Midwest floods?

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