Thursday, June 19, 2008

Iowa Floods 2008: Part Four

The floods of 2008 have passed through my immediate surroundings and headed on downstream. Although my county was unscathed and my home county received light damage, others weren't so lucky. Oakville is under water, every single square inch. Because it was a small town of some 400 plus individuals, it has effectively been wiped off the face of the map. Columbus Junction, where the two rivers so much in the news, the Iowa and Cedar Rivers meet, has flood 80% of the homes and over 50% of the businesses. How does one recover from that? There is a gas station that I used to frequent on my way to and from the airport because it always seemed to have cheaper gas than those stations nearer the bigger freeways. Only the tip of the roof now pokes out from the water.

Things wouldn't be so bad if it was just water but it isn't just water. It is a toxic stew of fuel, chemicals, sewage and lord knows what else that has been swept into it along the way. It is an environmental disaster. If you have ever walked in a flooded house after one of these, you would quickly see what I mean. Left behind is a thick sludge that covers every horizontal surface sometimes measured in units of feet thick. The smell is a combination of rotten fish, stagnate water, and sewage and would cause a horse to gag. It has seeped into every nook and crevice and is impossible to clean. Your only option is to gut the house down to the studs and rebuild and that is if the water was there for a very brief period of time. Many of these houses will be under water for a month or two! In those cases, a bulldozer is the only option.

Our local news is filled with images of sobbing owners who are finding out that normal home insurance doesn't cover floods when you live on a flood plain. These images are meant to tug at your heart strings even thought they brought it on themselves with their ignorance of the facts. All manners of events cause the destruction of houses everyday and never make the news because the people who owned them were smart enough to insure them. But maybe the joke is on these smart people as ultimately they are indirectly the ones that have to bail out these ignorant ones whenever the government throws money around after a natural disaster. Now these ignorant people will rebuild again and the cycle will again repeat as it has done for all time.

Repeat they will because we have created a monster out of a calm river. The river for hundreds of thousands of years has meandered and created vast flood plains for excess water in floods to be stored and absorbed. In effect, floods of past were localized and minimal. But humanity has encroached upon these flood plains and in our never ceasing efforts to conquer all that they can, have built levees to hold back the water. This works well until a year like we've been having. The water has been coming down faster than our now channelized rivers can carry it away and you have the recipe for disaster. But now, the flooding is worse because your source the river is now ten feet higher thanks to the levees. Houses that would have received inches of water are now ten feet under. The levees meant to prevent water from exiting the river also prevent water from entering it again creating huge ponds that take months to drain and dry out. Everyone laughed at New Orleans for building a city surrounded by an ocean held back by levees and in reality, those along these rivers are no different.

All this water now flooding Iowa is being dumped into the Mississippi and it barreling downstream. Gulfport, Illinois and Burlington, Iowa were the first to feel the wrath when levees fail. There will be many, many more. The corps of engineers is estimating that 14 places between here and St. Louis will have their levees overtopped by up to a foot of water unless something is done. All the levees that I have read about so far failing have done so when the water was still a foot below the crest of the levee just due to the pressure alone. These 14 places between here and St. Louis have not a chance in hell of preventing the levees from bursting. No word yet on what the river will do further downstream. The only guarantee will be that the death zone in the Gulf of Mexico is sure to get a lot larger this year thanks to the toxic brew in the water.

For the third time in my life, I have witnessed a major flood. Every time has been worse than the one before it and after every flood, work has been done on the levees to make them stronger and higher so that it will never happen again. More dams have been created to control the floods. More people build houses and live lives in places that they shouldn't. I've seen two 100-year floods and now a 500-year flood and I'm not that old. I'm willing to bet I will still not be that old when the next one hits.

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