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Flood Thy Neighbor: Who Stays Dry and Who Decides?

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Lisa Song, ProPublica, Patrick Michels, Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, and Al Shaw, ProPublica, report in ProPublica:

This story is part of an ongoing collaboration with Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting.

Just after Christmas 2015, police showed up at the Starling Community Trailer Court in Arnold, Missouri, and told residents to get out. There was no time to stack sandbags, no time to pack. The big one was coming.

The mobile home park backed onto a rising creek, where the oldest residents were closest to the threat. Sarah Quinn raced to help her grandmother and great-grandparents get to safety. They narrowly escaped the rushing Meramec River, which snakes around Arnold and other St. Louis suburbs on its way to meet the Mississippi.

About 12 miles upstream, the Meramec climbed the steep banks of the city of Fenton and flowed across a road into the Riverside Golf Club, where Walt Wolfner was busy carting furniture and computers out of his clubhouse. He knew, because the course had flooded so often lately, that he and 20 workers would need two weeks to mop up the damage.

Thirty miles farther up the Meramec, the river was creeping up on the town of Pacific, too. Devin Brundick and Felicia Ammann, a young couple who owned a small green bungalow beside the river, hurried to load their belongings into a friend’s truck.

By the time the river crested, Wolfner’s clubhouse was under 11 feet of water, Brundick and Ammann’s bungalow was uninhabitable, and Quinn’s grandmother lost everything.

“Her sofa, her chair, her deep freeze, washer, dryer, bed, mattress, all of it,” Quinn said. “All of her books that she’s collected over the years … nothing could be saved.”

They were the lucky ones. The flood killed at least 20 people in the Midwest and broke records along the Meramec. It was a once-in-a-generation flood — or so they thought, until it happened again 16 months later.

Only one city escaped the destruction. Valley Park, just upstream of Fenton, stayed dry during both floods, safe behind a ring of dirt and concrete — a $50 million levee designed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“It’s been wonderful,” said Valley Park resident Ryan McDougell. “The engineers that came in here and put the levee in, they did a great job. It sucks for the folks down below, because, I mean, this is going to happen every year.”

When rivers flood now in the United States, the first towns to get hit are the unprotected ones right by the river. The last to go, if they flood at all, are the privileged few behind strong levees. While levees mostly are associated with large, low-lying cities such as New Orleans, a majority of the nation’s Corps-managed levees protect much smaller communities, rural farm towns and suburbs such as Valley Park.

But why Valley Park? It wasn’t the biggest city or largest employer along the Meramec. Its neighboring towns all had homes and industry in harm’s way, too. But after almost a century of planning to protect all these communities, the federal government built a single 3-mile levee, shielding the low-lying area of just one town.

Exploring why that happened offers a window into the nation’s flawed approach to controlling rivers, in which — an investigation by ProPublica and Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting found — life-and-death decisions are dictated less by sound science than by economics, politics and luck.

Levees have been the nation’s most common method of flood control for much of U.S. history, despite a major drawback: Levees protect the land immediately behind them, but can make flooding worse for people nearby by cutting off a river’s ability to spread over the floodplain — the flat, low-lying land beside the river channel. This is a basic matter of physics and something the Corps has known since at least 1852, when a report it commissioned demonstrated that as levees confine a river to a narrower channel, they force water to flow higher and faster. A levee such as the one at Valley Park, on just one side of the Meramec, creates a traffic-jam effect that forces water higher on the opposite bank and upstream.

Twenty-five years ago, before it built the Valley Park levee, the Corps predicted that saving the city would cause just a few extra inches of flooding in areas close by. But it reached that conclusion based on outdated models, without factoring in wild cards such as additional development and climate change that often exacerbate flooding. After building the levee, the Corps never measured its actual impact.

Residents in Arnold, Fenton and Pacific weren’t just frustrated that they suffered repeated floods while Valley Park stayed dry. They blamed the levee for making the flooding worse.

Their accusations echo claims from residents near other levees: A 2011 flood along Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna River raised suspicions that a levee had pushed water into unprotected communities. In Louisiana, engineering consultants projected that a proposed levee extension would raise flooding by about an inch, but local reporters uncovered another study that predicted up to 8 inches — a finding that prompted a lawsuit. And a recent paper found levees have aggravated major floods on the Lower Mississippi River.

People across the Meramec basin can only watch and wonder. Sitting in his new clubhouse, which he’s rebuilt twice since 2016, Wolfner peers out at the river and stews about the unfairness of it all. Besides the levee, what does Valley Park have that Fenton doesn’t?

The Corps “could have bought out everybody in that area for that kind of money and never built the levee and not hurt all these people, not hurt guys like me,” he said.

“Let the water go where it’s supposed to go.”

“Seldom Economically Justified”

The Army Corps of Engineers has a huge, complex job — reducing flood risk across the nation’s rivers and coasts and a requirement to do it in a way that benefits the country economically. To prioritize its resources, the Corps uses cost-benefit calculations.

In practice, those formulas determine who gets flooded and who gets saved.

They’re intended to bring some dispassionate reason to a contentious process. But the calculations favor highly valued property over less affluent communities. And the Corps has favored levee-building over nonstructural fixes such as buying out homes to create space for the river to spread out during a flood — practices that many experts say are more effective in the long run, but which the Corps concluded were “seldom economically justified.” . . .

Continue reading.

There’s much more and the trade-offs are interesting.

Written by Leisureguy

6 August 2018 at 11:25 am

Posted in Daily life, Government

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