Your town, 2 futures

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By Kamyar Enshayan


It is year 2018, and after several weeks of intense rainfall, the National Weather Service is forecasting another week of rain and superstorms and possibly record floods.

Future I

Immediately following the 2008 flood, residents worked with local, state and federal officials to develop a comprehensive 10-year plan. The goals were obvious: significantly and steadily reduce community’s vulnerability to floods; offer incentives to relocate residents out of harm’s way; invest in upstream solutions to reduce flood damage to private and public infrastructure.

The plan used local, state and federal funds for 30 years to offer buyout options beyond what FEMA traditionally offered, offers so compelling few could refuse. The town had offered a variety of relocation incentives including free lots, interest-free and low interest loans; excellent unoccupied homes in need of repairs elsewhere in town were purchased and offered at reduced prices to those willing to move to already established neighborhoods.

Your town had begun to see the flood plain as a “critical hazard reduction infrastructure” (rather than idle land waiting to be developed), and implemented zoning ordinances to prevent building in the 500-year flood plain (giving more room to the river) as well as preventing storage of hazardous chemicals in the flood plain.

Most important, your town and several cities in the watershed had pooled their resources together and created a fund that offered upstream farms incentives to adopt 3-4-year crop rotation, grass-based farming, leading to improved soil quality, better yield, much less runoff, much less use of herbicides and fertilizers, creating a pattern of health and rural economic vitality.

Now, with record floods in the forecast, emergency responders, fire chief and elected officials are prepared but relaxed, drinking coffee and exchanging stories about the headaches of 2008. Now, with hardly anyone in harm’s way, no one to rescue, little or no damage to city’s infrastructure, your town is benefiting from the last 10 years of investing and implementing its plan.

People now are standing by the flooded river, reflecting on the flood of 2008, and could see the incalculable benefits of their hard work of the last 10 years.

Your town is regarded as a model community and an inspiration to other cities and states.

Future II

Literally days after the record flood of 2008, an astonishing amnesia began to set in. What flood? That was just a once in-a-life-time deal. Go ahead and rebuild in the same places; we need economic development.

Your town’s officials had forgotten so quickly: disrupted lives, lost business, stress, washed-out roads, damage to public infrastructure, rescue workers put in harm’s way, long meetings, lots of time and resources devoted to disaster relief.

“Let’s wait and see what FEMA will do for us this time” was the guiding principle. A few homes were bought out over the last 10 years and most of those families moved out of town because they could not afford to live in town with the buyout dollars. Any thought of doing anything else was dismissed by town officials as “difficult decisions” that supposedly would be made at some later point that never came.

Now, with record flooding in the forecast, it might be 2008 all over again: damage, disaster, more soil erosion, more water pollution, more disrupted lives, another round of calls for “donate to flood relief,” come to this or that fundraiser, more town meetings, more headache, more lost business, and more motor oil, more weed killers, and “orphan LP tanks” sent to Americans downstream.

Which future do we want to build?

Kamyar Enshayan is the director of Center for Energy & Environmental Education at University of Northern Iowa. Comments:


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