Man-made or natural disaster?

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 valleys.

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 pollutants.

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? In the immediate term, the answer is certainly to provide relief from suffering, as North Carolina is doing so expeditiously. Those who've lost their homes and businesses are physically and emotionally exhausted.

But sadly the worst may be yet to come as the number of dead animals and the failed human and livestock waste systems in North Carolina create an unprecedented health risk that requires rapid and large-scale response.

Recovery from the Midwest floods showed that it is equally important that disaster aid provide the real choice and assistance to move out of harm's way.

Additionally, moving buildings and animal farms out of flood hazard areas requires creativity, the smooth collaboration of federal and state agencies, and in some cases, additional financial assistance up front. Without it, victims have little choice but to rebuild where they are.

Under director James Lee Witt, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has become much more committed to such efforts. North Carolina's needs will take an unusual degree of political commitment and public support to ensure the devastation of this flood isn't easily repeated.

There is also a need to reform federal and state policies that subsidize intensive human and economic activity in flood zones. Unfortunately, Congress continues to find new ways of subsidizing flood-prone activity. This month, the House passed a bill that will double "crop insurance" subsidies to $4 billion per year.

This will encourage flood-sensitive agricultural activities in flood-prone lands because insurance and subsidies reduce financial risk. According to economic studies, passage of this legislation would result in millions more acres of cropland in disaster-prone and environmentally sensitive areas - even at a time of crop surpluses and low prices.

Flood damages in the US have more than doubled in the last 50 years, even when adjusted for inflation and the number of people. It's time for the federal government to take a hard look at flood damage prevention rather than after-the-fact subsidies that encourage rebuilding of towns, homes, and farms in harm's way.

We can't stop the flood plains from flooding. To avoid disaster, we simply must work to move our concerns to higher ground.

*Jane Preyer is director of the North Carolina Environmental Defense Fund. Tim Searchinger is a senior attorney for the Environmental Defense Fund, in Washington, D.C.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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