Flooding: When Our Risk Assessments Are All Wrong

What is “risk”? Various sources define risk as:

  • The effect of uncertainty on objectives. (ISO 31000:2009)
  • Possibility of loss or injury; someone or something that creates or suggests a hazard; the degree of probability of loss. (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)
  • A probability or threat of damage, injury, liability, loss, or any other negative occurrence caused by external or internal vulnerabilities and that may be avoided through preemptive action. (BusinessDictionary.com)
  • A combination of the likelihood of an occurrence of a hazardous event or exposure and the severity of injury or ill health that can be caused by the event or exposure. (OHSAS 18001:2007)

Here in the St. Louis area, as well as in parts of Texas, we have seen disastrous flooding in recent weeks. The results of flooding are clear, from temporary loss of business to longer-term loss of homes and even lives. Yet as devastating as the results are in many cases of flooding, we generally do nothing to mitigate these risks in the future.

“’Insanity’ is doing the same thing over and over and, in spite of experience, expecting that
‘This time, it will be different.’”

Anonymous[1]

Our risk policies are terribly shortsighted[2]. We don’t perform a thorough, objective risk analysis either after a given threat has passed or it has materialized. We collectively think, “It’s over…that’s the end of it”, and we do not learn our lesson. We clean up, and we move on.

“Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
George Santayana (1863-1952)

The problem with this shortsighted approach is that we do not rethink, or reassess, our flood risk controls or reassess the likelihood of flooding. The risk controls we have implemented – dams and levees – are inadequate because they are not built within a long-term regional or national framework. For instance, after the massive Midwest flood of 1993, the Monarch Levee protecting the farms and few businesses west of Chesterfield, MO, was rebuilt and raised to protect the valley from a 500-year-flood.

Since the threat of flooding was significantly reduced (or so it was thought), farmland was sold off and massive business investment took place. Hundreds of businesses and three super-sized malls now crowd the valley, annexed by Chesterfield in the mid-1990s. Several problems arise from the rebuilding and raising of the levee.

First, there’s the assumption that a “100-year flood” will happen once in every 100 years[3]. There’s a confusion here between probability and actuality. A one-in-100 chance that a flood of such magnitude as the 1993 flood doesn’t mean it can’t occur in consecutive years, any more than an .049 batting average means the opposing pitcher cannot get a hit in consecutive at-bats. Occasionally, a 50:1 shot will win a horse race.

In addition, the raging rivers that might have flooded the Chesterfield valley have to go somewhere else. Flooding across the Missouri River from Chesterfield and downriver is worsened because of the deflection, or channeling, of floodwater away from the area once known as “Gumbo Flats”. As a matter of fact, business development continues along the Missouri River floodplain as more levees are erected, further narrowing the channel through which the river flows, increasing the likelihood of a 100-year flood in St. Charles and points east and south.

In Missouri, levees are built according to a locality’s need. Regional or larger needs are not accounted for, because there is no strategic plan, no statewide or national flood policy, and no laws saying that a city, town, or district must account for its neighbors’ needs when deciding to build a levee.

Only in 1993 did the Federal government mandate that along with repairing and strengthening some levees in the more populated areas of the St. Louis region, some damaged levees would not be repaired and some would even be removed altogether[4]. It was a rare display of farsightedness that has yet to be repeated.

What is needed is a comprehensive, long-term approach to flooding that includes leaving a lot of bottomland at greater risk. If climatologists and other scientists are correct in assessing the risks of climate change – and I believe they are – what are we going to do? Build a 20-foot levee around the entire country?

NOTES

[1] Something like this quote has been attributed to Albert Einstein, Mark Twain, and many other luminaries. Since incontrovertible proof of authorship does not exist, the author is anonymous here.

[2] “A Waterlogged Nation Fails to Learn from Its Repeated Floods” (editorial), St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 23, 2015 – http://www.stltoday.com/news/opinion/columns/the-platform/editorial-a-waterlogged-nation-fails-to-learn-from-its-repeated/article_9ac63407-b46a-5e6d-bb6e-70594cfab559.html.

[3] “Recurrence Intervals and 100-Year Floods”, US Geological Survey (USGS), Nov., 2014 – http://water.usgs.gov/edu/100yearflood.html.

[4] O’Neil, Tim, “Lessons from the Great Flood”, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 28, 2013 – http://www.stltoday.com/news/local/metro/lessons-from-the-great-flood-some-defenses-strengthened-other-land/article_cabf7844-1042-556b-925e-f3defcab4a20.html.

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Posted in Disaster Planning, environment, Risk Management

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