Lessons from the Flooding Along the Mississippi
As I read news about the delicate dance of the Army Corps of Engineers as it directs sand-bagging of levees & flood gate opening along the Mississippi River, I couldn’t help but wonder about those people who would have federal, state, and local governments pay scant attention to the environment. And by scant attention I mean cutting or eliminating funding and decreasing agency power over certain areas (e.g. moves by some in Congress to bar the EPA from setting regulations to address green house gas emissions despite a Supreme Court ruling that the agency is allowed to do so). True much can be done by communities and with personal choice, but it’s clear to me that sometimes agencies need to step in and manage human expansion into and use of some areas of the coutnry. (I also wonder about the nutcases who deny that global warming/climate change exists, and that humans have a significant and measureable role in this process. Yes, nutcases. I’m judging; deal with it.) What caused the flooding? A variety of factors including human activity and the Mississippi’s quest to change her course. Amid the reports of preventative evacuations and 24-hr surveillance of levees, there are snippets about barges loaded with Midwest grain being prevented from using the Mississippi and about farmers working tirelessly to move animals & material out of the way of the River. There are snippets about the rich and diverse wildlife on the move. These floods & the measures implemented to mitigate flood damage have significant human, economic, and ecological effects. Yet the measures save much…without them things would be far worse, and still will be very bad.
The effects are not new since the 1993 Mississippi River floods are fresh in minds of many who live within the River’s reach. We depend so much on our environment yet we take it for granted. Worse, we try to fight nature. Listen to me: that is a battle that we’ll never ever win…never. A river will always retake its course; the plates will always release their pressure; hurricanes will form and take the path that they must. We can always act in ways to mitigate the damage caused by natural disasters but we can’t avoid or delay them. Mother Nature will always win. But we can work with the environment to ensure that our thirst for progress and development accounts for the environment’s needs. That begins with knowing about and understanding the role that the environment plays in our daily lives. Next it’s understanding the long-term effects of our activity on the environment, all the while keeping in mind that Mother Nature will cleanse itself from time to time. Often it isn’t until we wake up one morning to feet in ankle-deep water or take a breath and choke on smog or smoke do we pause to even think about the environment. It boggles my mind. To my mind, any serious government or government agency should always consider extensive and thoughtful assessments of the impact of development projects on the environment. Because if you don’t assess that impact and adjust as necessary you will pay down the road. Why? Because you cannot fight Mother Nature and win.
Take the Dutch, for example, who realized and acceptedyears ago that their geography demanded changes to their development, building, and thinking. They also adapt and improve their methods. True, they manipulate the environment but to me it doesn’t seem that they fight it. They’re now the go-to experts for all things levee and water systems management. That early acceptance and continuous adaptation has woven its way into the way the society acts, thinks, and reacts. I’m willing to bet that the choices were not easy and often were unpalatable but their country is under constant threat from the water that almost surrounds them…so they have equipped themselves for floods and other water disasters. And still they can’t defeat nature…but they’re far better off for having learned about their environment and how to best manage it. But the U.S. has apparently not learned these lessons, and it is not alone, I know. Communities are still built along the River in places where they have no business being. Mostly communities spring up around the rich farmland that is, ironically, the result of the Mississippi River. The River giveth and the River taketh away. Back in 1993 — and likely before that — people realized the Mississippi was being forced into a path that was too narrow, too restrictive. Is it so hard to accept that
[b]ecause of its might and willfulness…the very way people define a river is not particularly useful. [Some ecologists] say that the river is not just whatever water you see in the channel, but the banks, the floodplain, in fact, the valley itself, from bluff to bluff. It is anywhere the water has been and could potentially go — a river, Mark Twain said, “whose alluvial banks cave and change constantly, whose snags are always hunting up new quarters, whose sand bars are never at rest.”
But we deaf and willful doah sah. As if we can match the might of water.
Those of us who care about the environment and advocate for better management of its finite resources and better attention to ecological management vis-a-vis development are frequently ignored and belittled. I remember when some French company was shipping nuclear waste through the Caribbean Sea — close to islands — en route to Japan and Greenpeace protested. It was in early to mid-90s. Anyway, the protests caught on in Jamaica; for me it was the first time I’d seen a public and vigorous defense of the environment and our need to safeguard it. I was definitely interested. I signed the petition (even wrote a letter to the World Chart Show using my newly acquired internet access to zip off an email & it was read on air too) and began to harbour dreams of being an environmentalist. I can’t remember what happened to the shipment, and an internet search showed that there have been numerous shipments through Caribbean waters despite protests from Caribbean governments and their populations. Anyway, expressing those dreams were met with questions of whether I’d be a “tree hugger” or chain myself to trees to prevent their destruction. At the time I didn’t know how to respond but understood that the terms thrown at me were not complementary…and eventually I pushed those dreams aside for hopes of pediatric neurosurgery. I was good at science, after all, and may as well put those skills to use. I didn’t know who to ask or how to ask about this environmentalist business so I put it aside for years. Too many years. Inexplicably I did not continue with geography at the CXC level, focusing instead on the traditional three (Chemistry, Biology, and Physics).
Now I know how I’d have responded: You need people like me to balance out the drive for progress and this ‘development’ thing. Yes I may hug a few trees but above all I’m here to let you know about the beauty and value of our environment, and help guide our use of it. And that housing scheme you’re continuing to build called “Portmore” is an environmental time bomb. A nightmare. Have you properly assessed the cost of doing damage to the swamps? Because swamps aren’t just scary places they are drainage systems for larger bodies of water. So what effect will dumping up & building on the swamps have on Kingston Harbour and the Palisadoes Strip? What about the animals in the swamps? You’re disturbing their ecosystem not only with the construction but also by introducing a vast amount of human activity. What systems will be put in place to manage a large and growing community of people — their waste, activity, needs? What about disposal of their sewerage? Are you worried about an increase in pests, mosquitoes for example? What about the impact on popular beaches like Hellshire and Fort Clarence as the Harbour is affected? I mean Jamaica, after all, depends on its environment for revenue — our tourism sector. Are you sure you want to go about this project in this way? Answer these questions and others that come up as you do so and let’s talk…we can hug a tree while we chat.
Yeah my answer would have been something like that. Hindsight is vivid.
After Katrina I wondered whether Jamaica would learn any lessons…especially in vulnerable communities
[Jamaica] too [is] prone to hurricanes and other water disasters, so it behooves us to pay close attention not only to the news in the aftermath of ‘Killer Katrina’, but also to the discussions now emerging about what went wrong in terms of evacuation from low-lying or below sea level areas, shelter preparedness and strength, communication during and after a storm, and most importantly, the environmental impact of human ‘progress’.
I really wonder. What about lessons from this spate of flooding, like building in flood prone areas? Better water management? Anything? Grandpa has always told Mommy and she told me: why not learn the lessons you can from other’s mistakes rather than having to go through it yourself.
Though imperfect and under attack, the mechanisms in place to protect those people and areas along the Mississippi are in motion. They are doing their job. Besides Mother Nature knows how to cleanse herself and get our attention. The environment is not a lackadaisical or static system. Yet I’m loathe to just accept humans running amok with the idea that we have no responsibility or role to play in preservation or management of our environmental resources. It simply cannot be so. I wonder if communities that are severely affected by this spate of flooding will relocate as some did back in 1993. I pray and think positively about the people along the Mississippi who are affected by these floods. Eventually we will speak about this event in pecuniary terms (in 1993 the estimated daily cost to the economy of idled or barred barges was $4 million) and, of course, that will be an inadequate measure of the true costs of this flooding, and the eventual victory that the Mississippi will score in changing its course. I really hope that there isn’t much human loss. There are already images of people trying to evacuate or salvage what they can are emerging…really tugs at my heart even as I shake my head in disgust and disbelief.
Mother Nature has cycles older than our imaginations could dream that simply must be respected. Call me pagan if you want but I have a healthy respect and love for this earth and all that it gives me. I also understand that I’m supposed to be a steward of the environment…cannot be that we’re here to use this place indiscriminately and unthinkingly. So, what will we learn? More importantly, what lessons will we act on?