Midwestern Flooding Isn’t a Natural Disaster

“Floods and hurricanes happen. The hazard itself is not the disaster—it’s our habits, our building codes.”

Muddy Paws Second Chance Rescue enters a flooded house to pull out several cats near Glenwood, Iowa, on March 18.
Muddy Paws Second Chance Rescue enters a flooded house to pull out several cats near Glenwood, Iowa, on March 18. (Reuters)

Historic flooding in the Missouri River and Mississippi River basins has ravaged much of the Midwest in recent days. Nebraska and Iowa bore the brunt of the devastation, but rivers in six states at more than 40 locations have reached record levels. The swollen rivers have made short work of the levees that surround them, blasting through or over the tops of 200 miles of earthen barriers in four states. At least three people have died, and hundreds of homes and structures have been destroyed. The Nebraska Farm Bureau estimates farm and ranch losses up to $1 billion in that state alone.

Should we call this a natural disaster?

Labels matter, even—perhaps especially—in times of emergency. Calling the midwestern carnage a natural disaster neatly absolves us of responsibility, and casts us as hapless victims of an unpredictable and vengeful Mother Nature. Far better to draw a distinction between natural hazards and human-induced disasters. According to Craig Fugate, a former administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, “Floods and hurricanes happen. The hazard itself is not the disaster—it’s our habits, our building codes. It’s how we build and live in those areas—that’s the disaster.” This is not a call for blame, but a call to arms to learn from the past to keep ourselves out of harm’s way.

The United States has conducted a century-long, mostly failed experiment in flood control. We have straitjacketed the Mississippi and many other rivers with thousands of miles of levees in the quixotic pursuit of an unattainable goal—the floodless floodplain. But levees give a false sense of security, triggering risky floodplain development behind them. As the Association of State Floodplain Managers explains, “Even the best flood-control systems or structures cannot completely eliminate the risk of flooding from all flood events.” When the limits of federal levees became apparent after the Great Flood of 1927, the United States began designing artificial spillways and reservoirs to give rivers more room to spread out, although far less space than provided by their natural floodplains. When these efforts fell short, Congress launched a federal program of disaster relief in 1950. Soon thereafter, the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) of 1968 offered federal flood policies, often at below-market, taxpayer-subsidized rates. NFIP payouts began to exceed premiums collected. By 2017, in the wake of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, the NFIP was $30 billion in debt to the federal Treasury. In 2017, Congress canceled a portion of that debt for the first time ever so that the program could continue to pay insurance claims.

Despite these efforts, flooding remains “the costliest and most common natural disaster in the U.S.,” according to the Pew Charitable Trusts, costing billions annually. What more can we do? Although our experience with floods has been tragic and painful, it has yielded a trove of information that can protect us going forward. A recent paper by the Center for Progressive Reform, to which I contributed, identifies the need for better planning before storms strike, drawing on the adage that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. We know what to do, but now must summon the political will at the local, state, and federal levels to make enhanced disaster planning a reality. Hopeful signs have begun to appear.

First, on Monday FEMA is expected to release “Risk Rating 2.0,” which will assess the actual flood risk of individual properties, incorporating previously ignored flood triggers such as heavy precipitation. Previous maps and analyses tied flood risk to the “100-year floodplain”—areas believed to have a 1 percent chance of flooding each year. In many cases, severe flooding occurred outside mapped floodplains, taking people by surprise and without sufficient insurance.

Second, flood-insurance rates are beginning to reflect the true cost of insuring flood-prone properties. As Fugate has argued, “As long as we price risk too cheap, there’s no incentive to change behavior. Disasters will get bigger.” FEMA’s new “Risk Rating 2.0” lays the groundwork for linking insurance premiums more closely to risk, while also charging more equitable rates for low-value properties.

Finally, some places are beginning to strengthen their floodplain regulations and building codes. To participate in the NFIP and qualify for federal flood insurance, communities must enact regulations at least as strict as standards set by FEMA. But local governments now often exceed federal standards. After Hurricane Harvey, the City of Houston enacted an ordinance increasing the required elevation of new construction above predicted flood levels. The City’s analysis suggests that its new rules would have spared it from about 84 percent of the flooding that occurred during Harvey.

Back in the nation’s flooded regions, it is inspiring to watch midwesterners help one another rebuild. But the key is to rebuild without repeating past mistakes.