People tend to measure flood relief by how quickly the checks
are cut and the levees are rebuilt. But the true measure of the
federal and state response to the Great Flood of 1993 will be how
well the Midwest withstands the next flood. Will we spend billions
of taxpayer dollars to simply return to the status quo? Or will we
start to take long-overdue steps to move people and property out of
The Mississippi River has sent us a very powerful message: that
our reliance on short-sighted engineering solutions and our land
management practices have made matters worse. Instead of allowing
the river to fan out and take advantage of the natural flood
control functions of flood plains, we have spent billions of
dollars to force the river into ever-tighter channels, raising
flood crests and creating a false sense of security that has
encouraged flood-plain development.
More than three-fourths of the wetlands, which act as natural
sponges, have been eliminated from the drainage basins of the
Mississippi and Missouri rivers north of St. Louis since the late
1700s. It's no wonder that per capita flood losses were almost 2.5
times as great between 1951 to 1985 as they were between 1916 and
1950, after adjusting for inflation.
Even people in the Midwest, whose close ties to the land along
the river's edge make moving seem unimaginable, have begun to
question their faith in our structural flood control solutions.
They are beginning to realize that even the best levees, dams and
dikes can only provide a limited level of protection. Many of the
private or locally built levees provide an even lower level of
protection, as many are poorly designed or maintained. Over time, a
levee's history - and its protective limitations - are easily
While historic, the Great Flood of 1993 may ultimately be
remembered as the disaster that reversed more than 100 years of
faulty flood control policy.
Already, more than 50 communities have taken the first steps to
partially or totally relocate from the flood plain. That so many of
the region's river dwellers should be willing to pull up stakes is
Conservation groups like American Rivers do not think the
government should tell people that they have to leave their homes.
But those people who want to pursue non-structural alternatives to
levees like relocation and wetlands restoration should be able to
make real choices. These options not only reduce long-term risks
from flooding, they also reduce the long-term flood relief burden
on the taxpayer. …