The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Midwest Flooding:
Natural Disaster Made Worse by the System

Apr 1, 2019

For the past three weeks, major flooding has swept through states in the Midwest. Then came this year’s “bomb cyclone” which dropped record amounts of snow in the area. Rapid melting of that snow combined with record rainfall to create the flooding. Nebraska and Iowa have been hardest hit, but the states of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Missouri and North and South Dakota have also experienced flooding. The entire area feeding into the Missouri and upper Mississippi Rivers has been hit, and the flooding is expected to get worse as the floodwater moves downstream along the Mississippi River.

Already, record-high river levels have been reported in at least 38 locations, and that number is only expected to grow. Levees have overflowed and been breached all up and down the Missouri and other rivers, more than 200 miles of barriers.

A Human Catastrophe

Since the rainfalls and flooding began in early March, at least three people have been killed, and at least three billion dollars in damage has been done. Thousands of homes, farms, and ranches have been lost to the floods. Thousands upon thousands of people have been displaced.

In Nebraska alone, this flooding has caused more than one billion dollars worth of damage; more than 2000 homes and 340 businesses have been destroyed. And that’s only in one of the states that have been hit.

And this is only the beginning. Officials warn that 200 million people – in 25 states, in other flood plains – could be affected by significant flood events by the end of May!

Development Clogs Flood Plains

The causes of this record flooding are complex. But one thing is for sure: it is NOT simply a “natural disaster.”

The development along the Missouri and Mississippi rivers over the past century has laid the foundation for this catastrophe. It is similar to development all over the country, and all over the world: levees have been built as close to rivers as possible, to free land up for farming – taking away the natural flood plains and forcing water downriver.

Rivers have been dredged, straightened and narrowed, both to make additional land available for farming and to allow shipping in otherwise too shallow rivers. Business and housing development followed, taking over the flood plains – and putting millions of people in harm’s way. But of course, this was all treated as real estate, to be bought and sold and exploited for profit – no matter what the impact might eventually be on the people who moved into these areas.

Climate Change Contributes

Flooding has certainly impacted people ever since there have been human settlements. But there are strong reasons to believe that recent climate change has made extreme weather events – like flooding – more extreme, and more frequent.

More carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere heat that atmosphere, making it possible to hold more moisture. More moisture in the atmosphere means heavier and more frequent rainfall is likely. This is exactly what we have seen in recent years.

In addition, the more frequent occurrence of the “polar vortex,” the cause of this winter’s cold snaps, can also paradoxically be attributed to climate change. The warming of the atmosphere causes the vortex to be dislodged from its normal circuit at the polar region, and to spill farther south than usual. So, climate change contributed both to the extended freezing in the Midwest and the extensive rainfall in the past several weeks. That rainfall fell onto frozen ground, where it could not be absorbed, and so it collected on the surface and ran into the rivers, contributing to even higher river levels than would otherwise have been expected.

A Massive Response Is Needed

Governments in this country, from the national level on down to the local levels, will not do what is necessary to address this catastrophe. They can’t – they are too invested in protecting the profit system that currently exists. They have created the conditions for ongoing crises caused by climate change.

It IS possible to respond to this crisis in a way that makes all of these millions of people whole, and prepares the way for addressing the causes of these catastrophes in the future.

All those who have lost their homes to the flooding could be relocated away from the flood plains, with no loss to themselves. And people located in potentially dangerous flood plains could be relocated, and the cost of the moving covered. The flood plains could then be allowed to serve the purpose that they have naturally served for millennia. The cost could be covered by all the businesses and corporations that have made profits for decades from putting people into harm’s way. Working people should not have to expend a single dime.

In the same way, climate change and its effects could be addressed – but it will take a massive reorganization of the society and economy to deal with the increase in greenhouse gases, and to reverse that process. It is the ONLY thing that can truly address this crisis.

No single working person needs to lose their income or job; but it would be necessary to take the profits of the major corporations that have benefited from this environmental destruction, and to use that wealth to benefit people, not to inflate corporate profits.

The wealth, and the resources, are there, banked away. We can’t expect the wealthy, and their government, to willingly use those resources to help working people as long as society remains organized around the interests of the wealthy.