Kill the hurricanes. That was the subject of a story on CNN.com several years ago, and it disturbs me deeply, both for what it says about human ignorance of nature and about people’s expectations of government. People have suggested many ways to defuse hurricanes, the worst idea, as described on CNN.com, being attacking a hurricane with a nuclear warhead. That is scary.
I have a cousin who lives on a Florida island, one of those with Beach in its name, and I was concerned for his safety when Hurricane Frances hit near his home. I feel bad for people who have lost family members and property. But hurricanes have been moving across the Atlantic and striking Florida and the Caribbean for thousands of years. I doubt anyone who lives there now was unaware of hurricanes when he decided to move there.
When hurricanes develop off the coast of Africa, they are part of a vast system of air and water circulation that distributes heat, water and nutrients. That’s not something that people are smart enough to mess with. It’s tragic when people in hurricane zones have trouble, but hurricanes are part of nature’s grand design, one far too complicated for us to fully understand.
When I visited the Florida panhandle I was struck by the number of houses on stilts on Santa Rosa Island, one of the islands devastated by Ivan. Those aren’t poor people’s houses; they are vacation houses built on precarious barrier islands. If I had my way, barrier islands would be off limits to development. They are not stable. They move with the wind and water. This is demonstrated when the islands’ shoreward rolling motion reveals such things as old wooden boat ribs that were buried for decades or centuries. So when people who build luxury houses in unstable areas ask for insurance money and federal assistance, they take money from the rest of us. People who can’t afford to take vacations are subsidizing, with their taxes and rising insurance rates, people who make poor choices about locations of their houses.
Houses and businesses along rivers are also situated in places that are guaranteed to be lashed by nature, although many of these aren’t resorts. The Marietta Times reported about the Ivan flooding the city, and business owners complained that the National Weather Service predicted a lower crest than the actual 45-foot level. This attitude confirms columnist Charley Reese’s comments following Hurricane Ivan that people expect the government to do things for them and to tell them what to do. When you have the attitude that the government controls everything, you can blame the government when things go wrong.
The Marietta Times, in an editorial, said maybe people should return to the old system of river-watchers. I agree. Rather than expecting the federal government to do everything, people who live and work in a floodplain should be informed and prepared. Perhaps Ohio valley residents could form a citizens network using river-watchers, cellphones, Web cams and email. Rather than waiting for government to make an announcement, those folks could shoulder the responsibility of their own safety.
The Ohio River is nothing new. It was there when the Mound Builders and the Shawnee and Delaware settled in its valleys and along its tributaries. It was there when whites settled Ohio. Those nice, level plains, so admired by settlers for their rich soil, and so convenient for building, compared to the hills above the valley, are nice and level because they were created by river flooding. That didn’t end just because white folks came along. The earth isn’t a static, finished planet. It is active and alive, and flooding is a continuing event. Flooding enriches the soil and slows down the river.
After the great floods of the early 1900s, the Army Corps of Engineers built dams and reservoirs in the upper reaches of the rivers that drain into the Mississippi. The Muskingum Watershed Conservancy District, which oversees Dover Dam and Leesville and Tappan lakes, among others, is part of that program and controls flooding by retaining water upstream until river levels subside. But levees along the Mississippi force the river into a straighter, narrower channel with higher walls, making the river flow and rise faster. Faster rivers erode banks more quickly. Pile earth and sandbags all you want, but a river will flood in times of heavy rain. Fish swim, birds fly and rivers flood. Like government, control over nature should be minimal. No place is totally safe, but some are better than others. People who choose to live in dangerous areas should know the risk and should accept it. If not, they should move. But please don’t throw nuclear missiles into hurricanes.
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