The Spark

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

Midwest floods:
Natural disaster and human catastrophe
– all over again

Jun 30, 2008

Heavy rains and flooding in the Midwest have left an enormous human catastrophe in their wake: at least 24 people killed, over 38,000 people left homeless, dozens of towns and five million acres of farmland left under water, billions of dollars of damage to people.

As disastrous as the flooding has been, in most places it was actually less severe than the last major Mississippi flood 15 years ago. This time around, however, the flooding will likely end up hitting people even harder – considering the ongoing economic crisis, which has left so many people without jobs, savings or insurance.

The rainfall and flooding couldn’t have been avoided, but some of their worst consequences certainly could – had the federal government followed the recommendations of a study it commissioned after the 1993 floods.

The study concluded that the 1993 flood was a significant but not unprecedented rainfall-river event, and that such floods would probably occur again,” said Gerald E. Galloway, who led the 1994 study.

Levees are at the heart of the problem, yet little has been done to determine their location and condition,” Galloway continued. After the Katrina disaster, in 2006, the federal government provided 30 million dollars to improve the levee system, and some work began. “But Congress provided no money in 2007 or this year, and the program stalled,” according to Galloway. Last year, Congress passed the National Levee Safety Act, supposedly to establish an inventory and inspection program. “But once again no funds have been provided to support or even begin the work,” said Galloway.

Talk about politicians putting their money where their mouth is.

Severe rains and flooding are certainly nothing new in this country, nor are endless volumes of studies and books about floods – going back more than 80 years, to the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. To this day, however, there is not even a centrally organized, coordinated levee system in place. The levees are considered to be “owned” by all sorts of towns, agencies and even individuals.

The 1994 report, for example, recommended centralizing the management of the levees along the Mississippi and its tributaries under the responsibility of the Army Corps of Engineers – yet another piece of advice, by its own experts, that the federal government ignored. Such a plan would have helped, says Galloway: “Some agricultural levees would still have overflowed, ... but you would substantially have reduced the damage.”

Reduce damage to the population in flood-affected areas? But that’s certainly not a priority for the politicians and officials who run the government. We know it wasn’t in 2005 in New Orleans, and we know it isn’t today in the six Midwestern states affected by this latest flooding disaster.

Will it be different in the future – given all the talk about “change” in this election year?

To be sure, the two presidential candidates have made their media appearances in the flood areas: John McCain visited Iowa, and Barack Obama helped fill sandbags in Quincy, Illinois.

But both candidates have been U.S. senators – members of the same Congress that has been, year after year, denying the money needed for flood protection. That is a pretty good sign as to how much “protection” we can expect from politicians in the future – in the face of all kinds of disasters, natural or man-made.