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NWF View - Seeking Solutions to the Floods of Tears

Taking a hard look at the nation's flood issues

  • Mark Van Putten
  • Aug 01, 1997
As we think back on a spring of drenching floods in the upper Midwest and look ahead to a hurricane season that could demolish more real estate in the southern United States, we should take a hard look at this nation´s flood control policies and what they do to our fragile riverine and coastal environments. In an upcoming NWF report, "Higher Ground," we examine data from 18 years of flooding and come to some ominous conclusions.

Despite huge expenditures of public funds--$4 billion a year in federal tax money to prepare for, fight and recover from floods and other natural disasters--the nation´s public-disaster policy is not working. By encouraging development and rebuilding in areas with a high risk of future catastrophe, national policy fosters long-term reliance on government to fix what nature continues to destroy. Consider the following:

The most frequently used methods of flood control, including miles of levees and flood walls along our rivers and coasts, in some cases help worsen flooding conditions--either in areas downstream or where levees prove inadequate to hold back the torrent, as happened this year in North Dakota.

Just 2 percent of all federally in-sured properties receive a staggering 40 percent of all flood insurance payments. These are the homes that are repeatedly ravaged by flooding and then repaired; they typically draw on federal flood insurance claims every five to seven years.

As terrible as the last decade of flooding has been in terms of lives and property lost, global climate change portends an even more difficult future. People who are building or buying in already-threatened areas must contemplate a near future of more intense and frequent hurricanes, snowstorms, rain showers and a probable rise of sea level. Even the nation´s traditionally conservative insurance industry takes this threat to its bottom line very seriously and is researching how to lower its risk.

Part of the solution to this situation is already evident. Since the Midwest floods of 1993, 12,000 home and business owners have voluntarily opted to sell flood-damaged properties and move to higher ground. The land purchased in these buyouts is converted to greenbelts or allowed to return to natural floodplain.

A recent addition to the Mark Twain National Wildlife Refuge in Illinois and Missouri includes voluntary buyout land. The city of Tulsa, Oklahoma, has a model buyout program that is transforming flood-prone neighborhoods into open space. In an ongoing debate, the Mississippi Wildlife Federation, an NWF affiliate, is urging buyouts of low-lying delta land as an alternative to a planned dredging of thousands of acres of wetlands and forests.

Voluntary buyouts are not the whole solution to our flood problems. But where they work, such buyouts help people in distress to move to higher ground, make the most fiscally responsible use of insurance-premium and disaster-relief tax dollars, and provide real environmental benefits. That´s the kind of common-sense conservation we can use more of in this country.

Mark Van Putten 
President & Chief Executive Officer
National Wildlife Federation

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