11 Keys to Better Risk Management

I-55 flooded at Meramec River N of Arnold MO 20151231 WSJ photo

I-55 at the Meramec River, looking north, 31 Dec 2015 (Wall St. Journal photo)

The year 2015 ended – and 2016 began – with severe flooding on the Meramec River. The lengthy recovery phase began shortly after New Year’s Day and is expected to continue for months (and in some cases, years); the New Orleans area (Katrina, 2005) and the New Jersey coast (Sandy, 2012) are telling in that respect.

There was widespread flooding in the St. Louis area, as the Missouri, Mississippi, and Illinois Rivers all rose to near-record levels, but I’m going to concentrate on the Meramec – in part, because of the many record crests that occurred, and also because I live close to the lower Meramec.

The Meramec crested on December 30 and 31, 2015, at the following locations in east central Missouri:

Measuring Station Near Flood Stage (Ft.) Crest (Ft.) Previous Record Crest (and Year)
Pacific 15.0 33.4 32.7 (1982)
Eureka 18.0 46.1 42.9 (1982)
Valley Park 16.0 44.1 39.7 (1982)
Arnold 24.0 47.2 45.3 (1993)

Table 1

The primary – and most obvious – cause of the flooding was 9+ inches of rain[1] that fell within a 3-day period (December 26-28).

On the whole, 2015 was the wettest year in the St. Louis area, at 61.24 cumulative inches; the mean annual rainfall in this area is just under 38”. December, 2015, was also the wettest December on record[2] – 11.74”, nearly 4” over the 1982 record. As the news media recited ad nauseam, “All that rain had to go somewhere.”

Flood risk management and disaster response might have been improved immensely, if only certain issues and problems had been appropriately addressed beforehand. This is the most important lesson of the December, 2015, floods. If we don’t address these issues – if we fail to learn these lessons – we’re doomed to repeat them and the consequences will likely be far more serious.

A huge problem is the lack of a coordinated, strategic risk management plan for the greater St. Louis area and a single body or organization to effectively develop, implement, and maintain (which includes reviewing and improving) the plan.

  • We have numerous fire protection districts that have a stated commitment to work with one another in emergencies but no coordination or communication once an emergency is over.
  • In St. Louis County alone, there is one county-wide administration and 91 municipalities, many with their own police and fire departments, as well as mayors, courts, taxing and finance bodies, and various services (road maintenance, etc.).
  • There are other “first responders” involved in emergency and disaster management, like the Missouri Water Patrol and (on rare occasions) the US Coast Guard.
  • There are emergency management organizations at the state and federal level (e.g., FEMA[3], MOSEMA[4]) that don’t automatically reach down to the lowest government levels.
  • An area-wide plan for building and maintaining levees and other diversions, or for identifying and maintaining flood plains, does not exist. If a community wants and can afford to build an earthen dam or levee, it may do so without getting input from neighboring communities.
  • Though the St. Louis MSA[5] includes the following counties:
Illinois Missouri
Bond Crawford (partial)
Calhoun Franklin
Clinton Jefferson
Jersey Lincoln
Macoupin St. Charles
Madison St. Louis
Monroe St. Louis City
St. Clair Warren

There is virtually no cooperation between the states. This historically has resulted in large-scale development projects either avoiding the St. Louis area or being slow to develop, wasteful, and ineffective.

  • In general, there is overlapping, duplication, and waste with respect to providing and allocating resources. In addition, there are generally fewer resources in recent years, as state and federal tax income have been significantly reduced by choice.
  • Because of the lack of coordination and communication, the multitude of governmental bodies are at odds over risk objectives and risk controls.
  • If lessons are ever learned, they are learned in a vacuum. Problems like flooding, no matter how large or small, are treated as isolated incidents and not as symptoms of a universal problem.

For this to change, the governmental bodies of the St. Louis MSA need to adopt a strategic risk management plan. That plan should follow these risk management principles[6]

  1. Create and protect value by managing risk.
  2. Integrate the concept of risk management into all processes.
  3. Make risk management part of every decision.
  4. Account for and address uncertainty.
  5. Risk management is systematic, structured, and timely.
  6. Base risk management on the best information available.
  7. Align risk management with its context and the area’s risk profile.
  8. Account for human and cultural factors.
  9. Make risk management transparent and inclusive.
  10. Risk management is best when it is dynamic, iterative, and responsive to change.
  11. Risk management facilitates and encourages continual improvement.

Would such a risk management plan be good for the St. Louis area? Yes. Will such a plan be developed, let alone enacted, in my lifetime? Probably not. Should risk management be forgotten like every good idea? My answer in this case is an emphatic “NO!”


[1] The official rainfall amounts for 12/26-12/28, according to the NWS (and measured at Lambert Airport), were 4.87, 1.72, and 2.59 inches; the 12/26 and 12/28 amounts were new records.

[2] The normal rainfall amount for all of December is about two inches.

[3] The Federal Emergency Management Agency is part of the US Department of Homeland Security.

[4] The State Emergency Management Association is a division of the MO Department of Public Safety, or DPS.

[5] Metropolitan Statistical Area, determined by the US Census Bureau.

[6] ISO 31000:2009, “Risk Management Principles and Guidelines”, International Organization for Standardization (ISO), 2009.


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Posted in ISO 31000, ISO 9001, Risk Management

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