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Is Flood Protection System Working?

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Some of this week's flooding struck Gulfport, Illinois. That's where the Mississippi River overcame a levee. The water flooded many homes, and some people had to be rescued by boat or by helicopter. Authorities say it could've been worse. The government paid to clear some of the affected land after it was flooded back in 1993.

That year's record floods gave a powerful warning to the same people now facing high water in 2008. Authorities did make some adjustments, like moving people to higher ground, but not as many adjustments as you might think.

Ron Fournier of the Army Corps of Engineers says the basic situation is the same.

Mr. RON FOURNIER (Army Corps of Engineers): Moving out of the flood plain is one of the best things anybody could do, but, you know, there's a lot of flood plain on the Mississippi River. So you'd be moving a lot of towns and flood protection projects. The engineered, well-built projects are in the millions and millions of dollars when you build those kinds of things.

INSKEEP: You know, I'm looking at this great map published by our friends at the Des Moines Register here. It's online. And what it basically shows is an overhead satellite photo of Iowa City, Iowa, and then they superimpose on that the areas that would likely be flooded in a hundred-year flood as it's called, and the areas likely flooded in a 500-year flood. They've got a speedway. They've got an airport in the floodplain, things where you wouldn't see a whole lot of buildings destroyed. But, of course, you've also got the university in the flood zone.

Mr. FOURIER: Mm-hmm. Correct.

INSKEEP: It looks like you would have to move huge parts of a significant city in Iowa in order to get it out of the flood zone.

Mr. FOURIER: Right. To move an entire university would really be very expensive. And, you know, you do take risks. You build in certain locations and you hope that you won't have to deal with a flood situation like this, and most people probably could not have ever imagined this much water.

INSKEEP: Well, have people begun to think about flood control in a different way, that a certain amount of flooding, a certain amount of disaster if you will, is cheaper than the alternative?

Mr. FOURIER: Yes, very much so. The '93 flood really opened a lot of people's eyes to saying, you know, maybe it's not exactly the best thing to do to build in these floodplains. As a matter of fact, the Corps has actually worked to remove some levies, to bring the river back to the normal ebb and flow. And people are looking at do we really need to live in this floodplain? And if we do, we better insure that we have the right flood protection to be here.

INSKEEP: Now, wait a minute. You just said remove levies.

Mr. FOURIER: Correct.

INSKEEP: Why would that be an intelligent thing to do?

Mr. FOURIER: Well, of course, you can't remove all the levies, because they protect a lot of valuable agricultural property, a lot of valuable, you know, communities and people's homes. But there are areas that just protect land that's not being put into that effective use. So you look at that land, you say, well, why don't we return that back to nature, a place for, you know, birds and wildlife to go? And the thing is there are so few of those that are out there that are available to return back to nature that it's not going to have a great impact, but anything helps.

INSKEEP: You mean there's not enough land that is vacant alongside the rivers to just create places for the water to go, in effect.

Mr. FOURIER: Correct. Because, you know, people do like the river, and then they build up close and land is valuable. To put all of that land out of production would be very economically - it really couldn't be justified to just take that land and return it to water.

INSKEEP: When you read some of the history of trying to control floods in the Mississippi River, especially, but also on the tributaries upstream, you see this long history of people attempting to contain the river and ultimately failing. Has there been a serious evolution of thinking about how to deal with rivers? Or is it just - as you seem to be suggesting - working around the margins a little bit?

Mr. FOURIER: I would say there's a huge evolution. The working around the margins is probably where we're at today, because you cannot remove everything in the floodplain - like you couldn't pick up the University of Iowa and move it out of the floodplain. So people are trying to work around it. They're trying to figure out ways to deal with the river. Flood walls work, you know, levies work, and they do hold up and they do last and they do protect thousands and thousands of people and property.

INSKEEP: Given everything, Ron Fourier of the Army Corps of Engineers, should people outside the flood zone be asking a question that I think people outside of every flood zone always ask? What is the matter with these people? Floods have come there before. They should have figured out some way to deal with it by now.

Mr. FOURNIER: We hear that, and, you know, we're in the Midwest. I'm from California, and I see what goes on on the coastline. You know, there's storms. I've been to Florida, I see what happens there. People take risks. You know, the river is a beautiful river here. You can anticipate anything, but it's beyond what anybody expected. This year, the rain that came over the Mid-West was not even predicted. People prepared for it when they heard it was coming, but it was of such magnitude that it overwhelmed the flood protection that was out there.

INSKEEP: Ron Fourier, of the Army Corps of Engineers. Thanks very much.

Mr. FOURNIER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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