Blowing the levee…as American as apple pie.

“There are two primary choices in life; to accept conditions as they exist, or to accept the responsibility for changing them.”  — Denis Waitley

More than likely, you have already seen this story on your own. It’s been developing for days, alongside the tornado stories from the southeastern United States, until both were submerged by the flood of stories on Osama bin Laden.

But in case you missed it, the Army Corps of Engineers blew the Birds Point levee last night. When it comes to choices, the Army Corps has always been about action, and accepting the responsibility. This is the hand they’ve been dealt. [An aside: decades or centuries from now, when geoengineering for climate change is in the history books, the story of the Corps will make up the early chapters. It’s but a forerunner of what’s coming more broadly, on global scales.]

But back to last night’s story. This decision has been building a little while, driven by the seasonal snowmelt and aggravated by heavy rains across the central United States. The swollen Mississippi watershed is threatening the levees at Cairo, Illinois, located where the Mississippi meets the Ohio. The Ohio is itself raging. Waters are expected to crest at 63 feet in midweek. This is just a foot below the rated capacity of the Cairo levee.

Last night’s blow is expected to flood perhaps 200 square miles of Missouri farmland. Of course, that’s a bit of a euphemism. There are people who call that land home, who’ll presumably be reimbursed (but probably not made quite whole). In the run-up to the Corps decision, the lawsuits have been flying.

The story may be just starting. It’s unclear that this measure will suffice to protect towns and cities further downstream. Other levees along the Mississippi may be blown as well. Expect more coverage in the days ahead. Mike Smith, in his fascinating and frequently-refreshed blog Meteorological Musings, has been tracking the story. The Wall Street Journal ran an article Saturday by the poet laureate of American floods, John Barry. This will no doubt trigger a spate of sales for Barry’s best seller of a few years back, Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi flood of 1927 and how it Changed America.

Haven’t read the book? You should. Here’s a bit of a flavor of what you’ll find. Turns out that in that flood, the city fathers in New Orleans were so concerned the floodworks would fail they prevailed on the folks living on the bayous downstream to let them blow the levees and relieve the threat to the city. They promised reimbursement. The levees were duly blown. Up to that time, Louisiana had been one of the largest fur exporters anywhere in the world. Folks in the rural parishes made their living trapping and exporting muskrat. The flood wiped out the muskrat population and changed all that. When the trappers went to New Orleans asking for their money, the city stiffed ‘em. Turns out that the trappers hadn’t been paying this new-fangled social invention, the federal income tax. The city asked to see their tax records as the basis for the settlement, and the trappers were undone. The political stench was so strong it helped propel Huey Long into the governorship.

There’s so much more to the story! You’ve got to read it.

But back to the present day, and to the future. Two organizations that might interest you? The Association of State Floodplain Managers, and the nascent – and much smaller – Natural Hazard Mitigation Association. ASFPM has made many contributions to flood hazard mitigation, but none more important than their No-Adverse Impact policy. In a nutshell, this policy states that if you and I want to take actions to protect ourselves from flood that might raise the risk to others downstream, we ought to have to consult with them first[1]. Sounds simple enough! But it holds profound implications. NHMA is working to extend this notion to a broader range of hazards. [In addition, NHMA is addressing tornado mitigation, and encouraging the building of safe rooms in tornado-prone areas, following the suggestion and work of Ernst Kiesling, an engineer at Texas Tech. An important notion as we climb out of the rubble of April’s tornados and start to rebuild.]

As for that future, expect the challenges to mount. Look forward to further engineering of the environment, driven by our need for resources, our quest for safety from natural threats, and then, belatedly (always belatedly), our desire to protect the ecosystems and landscape that we love. Expect the scale of these efforts to mount, until it’s fully global.

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This trend toward geoengineering of increasingly major scope is one of those “conditions that exist,” the subject of Waitley’s quote.

Is that the condition you want to change? Do you want to minimize the engineering we need to do on the planet? Slow the trends that make this engineering necessary? Then join with others, the John Barrys and the Ernst Kieslings, with the folks at ASFPM and NHMA and accept responsibility for changing them.

You know what? Perhaps you’ll even find the Corps of Engineers on your side as well.


[1] I blogged on this back on September 2.

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