A Flood of Concern: For Midwestern Residents, June's Devastating Floods Illustrate the Need for Better Protection Standards and Infrastructure Improvements

By O'Rourke, Morgan | Risk Management, August 2008 | Go to article overview

A Flood of Concern: For Midwestern Residents, June's Devastating Floods Illustrate the Need for Better Protection Standards and Infrastructure Improvements


O'Rourke, Morgan, Risk Management


"This is our version of Katrina," said Mike Sullivan, spokesman for Johnson County emergency management, to the Associated Press after floodwaters inundated Iowa City ill June. Rivaled only by the 1993 floods that left nearly 50 people dead and caused an estimated $20 billion in damages, this year's flooding will go down in history as some of the most devastating to eve, hit the Midwest. The final toll remains undetermined, but the floods killed at least two dozen people and displaced some 40,000 throughout several states. Dollar estimates vary, but in Iowa, where 83 of its 99 counties were declared disaster areas, up to 20% of the state's corn production was lost and crop damage alone could exceed $3 billion, which will exacerbate already rising food prices across the country,

In Cedar Rapids, Iowa's second-largest city, the Cedar River crested at 31 feet, more than 10 feet above tile previous record flood levels in 1851 and 1929, which both reached 20 feet. Some 1,300 city blocks and 3,900 homes were submerged, leaving 24,000 of the city's 120,000 residents homeless. Damages in Cedar Rapids alone are expected to reach $1 billion.

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Now, as the floodwaters recede, Midwesterners face the arduous task of repairing their communities and their lives, and many are left asking the same question that perplexed New Orleans residents after Katrina: "How did this happen?"

Critics have pointed to the inadequacy of the levees lining the riverbanks of the Mississippi and its tributaries throughout the Midwest. For the most part, these levees were able to hold back the floodwaters. In some cases, however, they were outdated and in need of repair. And in other places, such as a levee in Missouri that broke after a burrowing muskrat weakened its structure, disaster seemed inevitable.

The overarching problem was that many of the levees were simply not built to withstand a flood of this magnitude, in the United States, levees are generally built to a 100-year standard, meaning that there is a 1% chance that a levee will Fail in a given year. In fact, the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) stipulates that if a flood-prone community is protected by a l00-year levee, it is considered outside the floodplain and the purchase of flood insurance is not required. For many residents, correctly or not, this amounts to a federal endorsement of a community's flood protection.

The recent floods, however, have been characterized as a 500-year event and tile levees simply did not stand a chance--water levels exceeded levees not by a few inches, but by 10 feet or more in many locations, leading some to question the accuracy of the floodplain maps that establish flood standard parameters in the first place.

Given that this marks the second 500-year flood in the past 15 years, the 100-year standard seems inadequate. For infrastructure improvements, the United States can look to other countries for innovative examples of flood prevention. …

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