Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Red River of the North

Recently, the news includes stories of hardship and sandbagging along the Red River of the North (not to be confused with the Red River between OK and TX). It was just 1997 (less than 10 years ago), when massive flooding along the Red River produces disastrous consequences, especially for Grand Forks, ND. This year, snowmelt combined with impending spring precipitation is creating a flood problem along the RRotN once again. How many times does it take for it to sink in (pun intended) that having their cities include development within the flood plain of a flood-prone river is ... not very smart? The whole nation will help to bear the cost of massive flood-prevention efforts that may or may not suffice to prevent inundation of property and perhaps even create casualties. And the whole nation will have to underwrite much of the costs incurred as a result of flood damage. Why should we pay for the stupid choices of someone else?

This is very much comparable to rebuilding New Orleans after Katrina - that city will continue to represent a hazard so long as it remains where it is. And New Orleans is far from the only storm-vulnerable location along the Gulf coast and the East coast. Furthermore, Katrina was not the dreaded "big event" that still remains over the horizon for New Orleans. The worst is yet to come and no one knows how much longer New Orleans can continue to be as lucky as they've been for many decades.

Unlike New Orleans, however, cities along the RRotN have much more frequent reminders of the foolishness of flood plain development in which they've participated. They have even less of an excuse for ignoring the very plain messages that the RRotN has been sending every few years. And there are many other cities along many other rivers all over this nation who are equally to blame for what is going to happen to them when their rivers burst out of their banks and inundate their floodplains. Flood insurance is not the solution to this problem - it simply allows stubborn people to replace their vulnerable property and stay in the same place! We need to develop land use regulation that will move us away from this precarious position, so widespread around the nation. The RRotN is perhaps only one of the most frequent reminders of our shortsighted policies for land use.

Reply to comment by Aaron Kennedy:

I'd be disappointed if you chose not to be completely honest! Narrow? In what way is my viewpoint narrow? I believe I understand the history of why cities wound up on rivers, but if we've learned anything in 100+ years, it should have been that developing the floodplain with structures is a costly mistake. In some years, even agricultural use will result in catastrophic losses to the farmers. Sure, floodplains are fertile, but why ask those not farming a floodplain to help pay for your losses? [Insurance companies spread their costs around all their policyholders via increased premiums.] If you took the risks, you should have to pay for it with the profits you made farming that fertile land in non-flood years.

Regarding GFK, if they've used Federal money to move out of the floodplain as a result of the 1997 flood, good for them. That's a much better use of external underwriting (either directly from the government or from insurance companies) than putting it into rebuilding in the same location after the floods recede. When we abandon developments within floodplains, we won't be paying that price repeatedly for recurring damage. If you use your flood insurance to repair and rebuild in the same location after you've been flooded, then indeed - shame on you.