Let the River Run

Flood disasters can be mitigated if we don't try to control the Mississippi

REPORTS from the federal government usually fail to elicit widespread national interest, except perhaps those that are issued by the United States Surgeon General on smoking, or from special federal prosecutors appointed by the president looking for smoking guns.

In 1992 a federal report titled ``Floodplain Management in the United States: an Assessment Report,'' was certainly not one to trigger media clamor for copies. Prior to the great Mississippi flood of 1993, a study on floodplain management would have aroused national media interest equal to a report on ground fog. The local press may have been much wiser in covering the report.

When the force of the Mississippi spoke loudly and destructively in the summer of 1993, the professional capacity to know what to do boiled down to this: Tens of thousands of amateurs in towns had to pile millions of sandbags around the clock to try to hold back an enormously swollen river with temporary levees. Some towns succeeded. Many failed.

To this reporter, who spent time in the Midwest during the floods, reading the 69-page executive summary of this report - recently sent to me - is a little like reading sections of the consumer information brochure for the Titanic just before it sailed.

With spring rains just around the corner, what can be learned from a 1992 report?

Of course, none of the professionals who study the ramifications of rain and floodplains could have predicted the historic stalled weather systems that hung over the Midwest for weeks. More rain fell than has ever been recorded in the region. And hindsight may be as easily dispensed here as anywhere pundits don't fear to tread.

But the report, prepared by the Natural Hazards Research and Applications Information Center of the University of Colorado, is mostly an unfortunate, virtuous government paean to bureaucratic planning that in fact has proved to be planning with a perilous objective: controlling the river.

Two impolite questions are raised here: In this report, was the public interest served accurately, clearly, and with hard professional disclosure? And does the lesson of the US's biggest flood change man's presumption that his specific, accumulated knowledge was simply misapplied?

What was, and is, lacking when it comes to understanding floods is a collective vision and humility to admit the mistakes of the past, and the courage to act in the future to prevent more floodplain disasters. What must change is the attitude that people can control the river. We can't. Remember, the professional, street-level response to the big flood after 150 years of knowledge was to sanction amateurs to fill sandbags.

The report obfuscates the fact that all public and private agencies involved in the uncoordinated bureaucratic activity over floodplains thought they had made significant progress since the 1960s. Last summer, the river said they hadn't.

What is called into question here is not so much the sum of professional knowledge about using and controlling rivers and floodplains, but the resulting fragmentation and bureaucratization of it. If there were any loud, persistent, singular voices of warning from the federal government, they were buried in the sense that progress had been made. Aiding in the burial were the political interests of local and state agencies each with an agenda for its part of the river.

The result was the biggest, costliest flood in US history. The river prevailed.

Nowhere does the report mention the enormous damage done to the river by pollution from chemical plants, urban waste, and agricultural runoff.

Many of the floodplain professionals, and particularly the US Army Corps of Engineers, say the flooding would have been far worse without the dams, levees, and policies previously implemented. Dozens of other professionals challenge this conclusion. Over the years, opposing positions have hardened. Only during the last few years has the Corps backed away from construction projects, acknowledging the benefits of restoring and encouraging floodplains.

There is no governmental agency solely in charge of all aspects of floodplain management in the Midwest. Nor could there be. The overlapping jurisdictions and competing interests, the huge complexity of land mass over a dozen states, the multiple water uses and historic attitudes could not be controlled effectively by a single agency.

There is House Document 465, known as ``A Unified National Program for Floodplain Management,'' which has been changed many times down through the years. But the program remains only a ``framework'' administered loosely by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The objective needs to be decontrolling the river.

The floodplain report inaccurately states: ``Floodplain management is carried out within a structure of legislative, administrative, economic and judicial opportunities and constraints.''

There is no ``structure'' to this. Coordinating floodplain management can't be successful as long as more and more control over the river is the objective. The report also says, ``Today's floodplain management framework is a product of planned initiatives, evolved methods and fortuitous circumstances.''

Not until an epilogue of the report does Gilbert White, former director of the Natural Hazards Research and Applications Information Center, courageously say, ``The definition of precisely what is meant by floodplain management in particular areas of the country or under the jurisdiction of specific agencies, is still far from clear or uniform in either principle or practice.''

If so, there is hope that the lessons of last summer will cause a sea change away from the urge to control the Mississippi. It was Mark Twain who suggested some years ago that we ``might as well bully the comets in their courses and undertake to make them behave, as try to bully the Mississippi into right and reasonable conduct.'' The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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