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
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
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? …