The American system, and perhaps the American character as well, has always favored coping with the damage from disasters as they come over doing all that can be done beforehand to mitigate the severity of damage. The insurance industry is aligned toward dealing with the aftermath rather than encouraging preventive measures, as is the government, which tends to label regulations designed for prevention as socialist intrusions. It’s the same philosophy that guides the economic system, which is all for free market capitalism on the front end when businesses are making profits for the few, but resorts to socialism on the back end when things go sour and losses are then spread out among the many. “Heads I win, tails you lose,” says the Wall Street tycoon, and friends in government chime in “Yea, verily.”
Unrestricted urban and suburban development covers acreage that drained itself adequately with concrete and asphalt that does not absorb water. That seems obvious, and the necessity for a drainage system capable of handling all the runoff also seems obvious. Certainly there are some events, such as the unprecedented rainfall in Houston from Hurricane Harvey, that would stretch any drainage system to the breaking point. Extraordinary events require extraordinary preparation, a methodology well known among engineers, who are trained to design and build structures and systems to withstand the extraordinary. Engineers’ best efforts can be hamstrung, however, by ideologically and greed driven government leaders and business executives, the effect of which can be seen when disaster strikes and destruction of life and property is greater than it needed to be.
Dynamiting through a levee during the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 to create an artificial crevasse at Caernarvon, St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana, 14 miles below New Orleans. The crevasse was created to take pressure off levees at New Orleans. Archival photography by Steve Nicklas.
The acknowledged masters of hydro engineering,the Dutch, have recently changed their philosophy about coping with excess water from staving it off to flexing with it. Bend, to keep from breaking. That has always been the way with nature, of course, where coastal wetlands have served to absorb the brunt of ocean surges, and where floodplains served as safety valves for swollen rivers. Holding water back with fortifications has always been expensive and unreliable. Water is relentless, and it will find a way.
A flooded town on the lower stretch of the Mississippi River in 1927. Photo from the National Archives and Records Administration.
Creating concrete and asphalt jungles willy nilly without regard to anything other than the almighty dollar is foolishness, and ultimately a price will be paid. In the American system, unfortunately, that price is often borne by the society as a whole, and especially by the poor, but certainly not by the wealthy or by the government leaders who created the mess. Breaking up the concrete and asphalt jungle with permeable pavement, a construction practice that has been around for over fifty years and needs to be used more widely, is one way to forestall some urban flooding. Installation costs for permeable pavement are higher than the traditional kind, but it has other benefits and cost savings that offset the higher up front price tag. It’s not a perfect solution, but nothing can be. It’s a step in the right direction.
One of the arguments some business people and their mouthpieces in government often advance against green methods applied to development are that they create too much red tape, leading to a bad environment for business and a net loss of jobs, besides being downright socialist, which of course is an accusation that is supposed to make all the Greens (environmentalists, tree huggers – choose your own epithet) run away and hide themselves in shame. Too bad. If the true costs of bad environmental practices were borne by the businesses and governments that engage in them, they would change their tune.
A 1974 song written and sung by Randy Newman about the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, and about American society.
If businesses paid their workers a living wage, fewer of those workers would need to rely on government assistance to make ends meet. If businesses that made money here and took advantage of the national infrastructure were required to have corporate offices here, and therefore required to pay their fair share of taxes to help support infrastructure improvements, then maybe the country wouldn’t be falling apart while a select few get obscenely rich at the expense of everyone else. If, in other words, we stopped allowing some businesses and their allies in government to slough off hidden expenses on society at large, we could make progress toward a less dangerous future. But it’s going to take a change of heart, of character, to turn this backwards system around and look at green development as the only sensible way forward for everyone, instead of being led by the nose by those whose view of development looks backwards and serves only themselves.