We stood at the end of a road leading into the waters of the Mississippi River, which had burst through a levee in Gulfport, Illinois, and swamped thousands of acres of farmland and most of the town.
The water, filled with a bobbing mass of soggy cornstalks and algae, literally crept several inches up the asphalt incline every minute. About a mile away stood Lois Russell’s farmhouse, in about 4 feet of water that was quickly rising. The mile of water between us and the farmhouse had been her fields. Russell, 83, is obviously a tough woman but cried softly as she watched her house and land consumed by water.
A muskrat popped his head out of the floodwaters near the crowd of people gathered there, then quickly dived back underwater and swam into the broth.
”He’s more scared of us than the flood,” said one woman.
Her comment symbolized something many people have been thinking about. What role did we play in these floods? To what extent did we, not the whims of nature, actually cause them? The floods drowning the Midwest are being called 500-year floods, meaning there is only a 1-in-500 chance each year that such a flood would occur. But the 1993 deluges in the same area also met the definition of 100- and 500-year floods.
At this point, people don’t think it will be another half millennium before more floods of such magnitude hit the Midwest. The reality is, our society has a lot to do with the floods.
In a nutshell, for the past century or more we have viewed nature including bodies of water as something of an enemy or wild force to be tamed, manipulated, or harnessed.
We have been determined to do what we want where we want, whether it’s building houses or creating farmland, ignoring the natural ebbs and flows of nature in the process. Now, we are seeing disastrous results.
Adam Pitluk sums it up in recent blogs. His book Damned to Eternity adds another fascinating, little-known layer, the tale of one man imprisoned for breaking a levee so he could party without his wife knowing.
Going farther back, Rising Tide by John M. Barry also foretells how the human mission to tame nature — specifically the canalization of the once free-wheeling and whimsical Mississippi River — spawned the legacy of Hurricane Katrina and also these floods.
In Florida I saw a documentary produced by the Army Corps of Engineers in the 1950s describing its heroic draining of much of the Everglades, talking about the “mad,” “malevolent” nature of water, trying to destroy man at every turn, and reveling in how man was able to thwart it.
Now we know — too late in many cases — the results of such an approach.
Meanwhile it is widely accepted by scientists that one of the primary effects of global warming will be more heavy, fast rainfalls of the type that can’t be adequately absorbed by the earth. In other words, more massive floods. Alternating with droughts.
And the poor, around the world and in the U.S., will be affected the most by these patterns. As we saw with Katrina, and to a lesser extent with the Midwestern floods, the poor often live in areas where they suffer the most from flooding and are least likely to get resources to rebuild their lives.
And the fate of the poor in the U.S. pales in comparison to developing countries, as we saw with the recent tsunami, cyclones, and floods when tens of thousands perished because of flimsy housing, lack of warning or transportation, and other factors.
It is too late to reverse many of the effects of global warming or foolish development — McMansions built on floodplains or eroding coastal cliffs — that helped cause these current catastrophes. We can only hope we as a society make better decisions in the future.