Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Missouri Misery

They called it “Goliath.” 

And what a beast it was.  This NASA/NOAA image depicts what they said was a “massive low pressure system that generated severe weather in the southwestern and central U.S. bringing snow, heavy rainfall, flooding and tornadoes.”  Dozens of deaths—most from flooding and tornadoes—have been blamed on Goliath.

Hardest hit was the state of Missouri.  As of this writing, much of the affected parts of the state remain inundated or uninhabitable, with the floodwaters headed downstream.   In an ABC NEWS story, Gov. Jay Nixon says “flooding has affected about 7,100 buildings in four counties, and about a half-million tons of debris needs to be removed.

The story continues:  Health officials say floodwaters blamed for at least 25 deaths in Illinois and Missouri can carry hidden risks from the sewage and other noxious pollutants they contain. Tens of millions of gallons of untreated sewage have spewed since last week into the Meramec River near St. Louis, and those plants remained offline Tuesday. That waste eventually has and will flow into the Mississippi River and south to the Gulf of Mexico.

“But the floodwaters also could include such things as farm chemicals, as well as livestock waste, industrial chemicals, dead animals, gasoline and railroad toxins.  Even sandbags used as last-ditch defenses against floodwaters, pose a health risk because inundations turn them into mountains of smelly, polluted sacks that often are destined for landfills.”

Photo Source: Robert Cohen/St. Louis Post-Dispatch via AP

These comments paint a fairly nasty picture for the reader, but I’m sure the in-person impact on the ground is far worse than even words can describe.  Now imagine enduring all of this during the middle of winter, with sub-freezing temperatures and the looming threat of new storms always on the horizon.  Flooding, in particular, can have long-lasting effects on a society, in terms of damage to property, farmland, utilities and transportation infrastructure.   

So the question remains, what can be done to reduce both the loss of life from the event itself and improve the resilience of families and communities (and regional economies) so they can return quickly to a healthy and productive life?  I’m thinking there are really three ways to prepare for, and guard against, the impact of flooding:  (1) technology; (2) preparedness; and (3) policy.

Flood Prevention Technology

The methodologies employed by governments and others to prevent damage from flooding vary from simple dikes and levees to sophisticated gates and pumping systems.  None are foolproof, and most will only reduce damage.  Flood reduction techniques are applied where they can be afforded, leaving some countries and regions without adequate protection.   

This was one of the primary criticisms leveled by a coalition of nations during the recent Paris climate summit, where the friction between those that “create” the climate disruptions (attributed to greenhouse gas emissions, for instance) aren’t always the ones who suffer the impacts of those climate events.  I also discussed it in a previous post.  That's fodder for another day, but the message is clear: Like the sandbags mentioned above, technology is only part of the solution.

Emergency Preparedness

Local communities at risk from floods take precautions, make preparations and practice their responses to a weather event.  Corporations (like power companies) plan for restorative efforts.  Families and individuals, as well, have an obligation to do the same.  The US Government offers a variety of resources, reminding citizens to:

  • Know your flood risk.
  • Make a flood emergency plan.
  • Build or restock your emergency preparedness kit, including a flashlight, batteries, cash, and first aid supplies.
  • Consider buying flood insurance.
  • Familiarize yourself with local emergency plans. Know where to go and how to get there should you need to get to higher ground, the highest level of a building, or to evacuate.
  • Stay tuned to your phone alerts, TV, or radio for weather updates, emergency instructions, or evacuation orders. 

But what more can be done to truly reduce the susceptibility of a region, a community or even a single home to damage and disruption by floods?  Isn’t there a way to keep people out of harm’s way in the first place, thereby avoiding the risk of injury or death?

Which brings me to the next topic. 

Flood Damage Prevention Policies

I’ll take on this topic in a separate, upcoming entry.  Specifically, I’d like to refocus this page back to a discussion of policies for development that must be employed—and enforced, if necessary—to truly create a more safe environment for habitation.  They may be related to planning, economics, education or the administrative structure of the operational response itself.  But it is through intelligent policies and the diligent implementation of the resulting plans that we can truly begin to organize our society in a way that protects ourselves, our towns and our livelihoods.

Whether flooding or any of the other weather or geologic hazards I’ve mentioned to-date, this planning/ policy discussion is, in essence, the basis for this blog and the intent behind it's title: High and Dry. Safe and Sound.

[More to come.]