Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Great Flood

The news from Wisconsin is more than a little grim. After record, torrential rainfall over the weekend, a state of emergency has been declared for a whopping 30 counties. Gov. Doyle is expected to ask for a federal declaration of disaster sometime soon, as FEMA begins its survey of the effected areas.

While several communities have been flooded, the most dramatic tale comes from Lake Delton, which until yesterday was a resort spot in the Wisconsin Dells where the Tommy Bartlet water and ski shows made their home. Amazingly, shockingly, the lake is almost entirely gone now, having burst over its banks and drained, quite spectacularly, into the Wisconsin River.

Caffeinated Politics has some good pictures of the devastation in Lake Delton, plus a bit of interesting commentary.

Mother Nature does, indeed, bat last. In the rebuilding process already promised by Doyle and the communities hard-hit by this disaster, we need to make sure to strike a balance between revitalization and forethought. That is, money shouldn't be our guiding principal when it comes to development. Clearly, many of the homes and businesses lost or damaged by the high water were built on flood plains or near possibly poorly constructed dams and levies. Many of the people who lived there, however, were told by their insurance companies that they wouldn't need flood insurance because of the presence of the dams. They've been proven tragically wrong.

Sometimes, you can't know that something like this will happen. Sometimes it is nothing more than a freak occurrance. Too often, however, the surveys have already been done to illustrate the danger that people would face by building in certain areas. They're ignored, though, either by zealous developers or careless citizens.

The obvious, extreme example would be what happened in New Orleans when Katrina hit. Shoddily constructed levies, the result of corner-cutting in the name of higher profits, lead to death and destruction on a sickening scale.

We're not holding back the ocean up here in Wisconsin, but the same principal applies. First, that we need to make sure we hold construction projects to the highest standards of safety and planning. Second, that Mother Nature comes first, because she doesn't care how good your plans are--when it comes down to it, she always wins. A little humility, a little deference, goes a long way.

So we'll rebuild, as we always do and always should do, but I hope we do so with a lot more reason and responsibility. Just because a place is beautiful, doesn't mean we're entitled to building luxury homes or resorts there. Sometimes, a beautiful place should be left alone to be beautiful.


The Red Cross is coordinating efforts to donate supplies to those left in need by the flooding. It'll also be worth keeping an eye out for donation drives to support farmers who will invariably be effected by all of this, too.

(photo from the AP)


dty - lodi said...

From your post - "Clearly, many of the homes and businesses lost or damaged by the high water were built on flood plains or near possibly poorly constructed dams and levies."

Do your research. As reported on several media outlets, the homes destroyed on Lake Delton were approved by the Army Corps of Engineers as being outside the 100-year floodplain. The dam at Lake Delton never failed and no one has suggested that the road or banks around the lake were structurally unsound in any way.

The flooding that is happening in many areas of Wisconsin is literally a once in a millenium event. Could governments and developers have built homes and structures "to the highest standard" so as to avoid the impacts of such a catastrophic event? Certainly, but at a tremendous cost that is not worth the risk.

Do you have homeowners insurance against a meteor striking your house? If I live near the zoo, should I build my garage specifically to withstand the force of a charging rhinoceros if it were to escape? Should every bridge be built to provide clearance over waterways that allow for a once-in-a-millenium flood ... at a resulting massive cost both in terms of money and land takings?

We don't and shouldn't build to the absolute highest standards ... we build to reasonable standards, assessing risk and potential loss. When a once-in-a-millenium event happens, we help out our neighbors and move on.

Emily said...

I hear you, and I admit that I mis-spoke/typed when I indicated that the flooding was the result of poorly constructed dams and levies. What I was attempting (and failing) to point out was that the stretch of land that did collapse was incredibly sandy, and not particularly great for building homes on. Also, that Lake Delton is an artificial lake, where a smaller river once flowed freely to join the Wisconsin.

Whenever we divert nature's designs, we run this sort of risk.

But you're right - hopefully this was just a freak incident, and there probably was very little to be done to avoid it (except going back to the 30's and convincing them not to create the lake).

What I'm arguing is that, now we've seen what can happen and now that this sort of flooding seems to happen a bit more often than usual, we ought to put more care and forethought into our developments. I don't think that's too much to ask.

dty - lodi said...

Thanks for the calm response!

"Care and forethought" is reasonable and always desired. Building all public or private projects to the "highest standards" is simply not reasonable, and neither is trying to predict or prepare for an event that has never happened before and likely never will again. Risk is a part of life, as is dealing with nature.

Emily said...

And to follow up, it does indeed look like the destroyed homes were on a FEMA classified floodplain. The village, however, failed to reapply for federal flood insurance, and it's not entirely unlikely that it was because the new floodplain map might have made building in those areas (rightfully) more expensive. That, to me, is unacceptable.

Article here.

The Lost Albatross