And Then the Deluge

ACORN Climate Change FEMA Wade's World

            Marble Falls       Recently in workshops ACORN has done with the Anthropocene Alliance in New Orleans and Atlanta with more coming soon in Cleveland, Philadelphia, Fayetteville, North Carolina, and Port Arthur, Texas, we have used a campaign exercise for the small groups about flooding.  Many of the participants come from frontline groups that know flooding all too well from levees, rivers, heavy rain, hurricanes, and more.  They nod knowingly as they read the paragraph to start the discussion.  They report enthusiastically about their targets and demands to the whole session to applause at the end of the day.

Talking to Tim Palmer on Wade’s World about his book, Seek Higher Ground:  The Natural Solution to Our Urgent Flooding Crisis, I wonder what he might have added, if he was part of one of these sessions.  Palmer’s looks at the issue sympathetically, but from a number of different angles.

Looking at dams, he sees the water barriers upstream, but the damage downstream, often in lower income areas.  When he examines the tens of thousands of miles of levees, he notes that mainly they protect rural and farming areas where few people live.  He doesn’t worry as much about New Orleans being below sea level, Houston facing heavy rains, New York after Hurricane Sandy or expensive coastal properties.  He believes that those cities, their populations, and the governments at all levels will come up with the resources for protection and even rebuilding.  Palmer notes that less than 7% of the US population is susceptible to flooding for any reason.  He also argues that a relatively small percentage of the US territory, less than 5%, is on flood plains, so why are we crazy enough to allow any building or development in these areas, since we’re just asking for them to flood, sooner or later.  Worse, he thinks that the federal government and its insurance programs are abetting such foolhardy developments by continuing to cover the losses.

Although none of the fifty participants in our workshops so far, and I’m betting none in the four to come, have come up with a campaign or demand that their communities be bought out and moved to higher ground, that is almost precisely what Palmer is arguing.  This was the heart of ACORN’s fight and victory in New Orleans that families were allowed to rebuild and return to their neighborhoods, so before you shout him down, remember that he’s not saying that would necessarily be the solution in resource-rich urban America.  He is saying that given the relatively fewer families and communities in other areas, it might be more cost-efficient and climate friendly to facilitate buy-outs and mobility that also let rivers run free and restore the natural flooding patterns that created the land in the first place.

Palmer makes a strong case, but it’s hard to evaluate fully.  After Katrina, we saw too clearly that the values set on properties didn’t allow replacements without new monies and certainly would not have financed movement elsewhere in the city to higher ground.  In fact, the value of any property in the less than 20% of the city that didn’t flood soared in price astronomically.  There’s also no political will it seems to come up with the money to create the financial bridge that would encourage families, even in rural areas, to move.  FEMA and other programs are putting a stop to paying for an infinite number of claims to rebuild after repeated flooding, but that’s piecemeal and case-specific.

Palmer is looking around the corner.  He’s looking at the climate challenges worsening.  Undoubtedly, in the long run he’s totally correct, but many communities are likely to continue paying the price and, if lucky, surviving the floods, before insurers and governments put their money where his mouth and others are, so that people can get to higher ground.