Friday, June 13, 2008

Thoughts About the Deluge

The Iowa floods are truly of historic dimension. Even Digby is wowed.

"Far be it for me," she says, "to bring up the Obalglay Armingway, but this seems really bad."

Indeed, it is. Pensacola residents, with their recent history of violent hurricanes fresh in mind, can relate. But the kind and extent of flooding we're seeing in the Midwest is, if anything, even more devastating than Ivan and Dennis.

Iowa (from the Mesquakie word for "beautiful land") is blessed with many rivers and streams, as the NOAH map, above, illustrates. We happened to be hanging around there in '93 when the worst floods in that state's recorded history inundated Iowa and neighboring states downstream along the Mississippi River all the way to New Orleans.

For a very long time that year Des Moines, a metropolitan area at least three times the size of greater Pensacola, lost all of the most basic municipal infrastructures we tend to take for granted: electric power, passable streets and bridges, sewer and garbage service, readily available food, and potable water. Without those, surviving became a huge challenge every day.

Ironically, it was the lack of potable water that quickly became the most frightening. The Des Moines municipal water plant was knocked out for ten days back in 1993. For a week and a half, nearly half a million people had only what rainwater they could catch and occasional Army Reserve water distribution trucks ("bring your own containers") for all their needs. Half the city took showers outside, under the eaves. The other half didn't take them at all.

Judging from news reports, the flood levels in most Iowa communities this year are twice as high as in '93. Although it may be true, as one local described it to us today, that the Des Moines water plant is now a "fortress" that cannot be inundated again, other cities haven't had the foresight or the means to protect against renewed flooding of the biblical dimensions they're seeing today. They have to extemporize.

And when extemporizing, one can get desperate. Among the strangest stories of the Great Iowa Floods of '08 is this, from the Cedar Rapids Gazette:

In hopes of keeping the raging Cedar River from washing away a railway bridge, on Tuesday evening local railway company officials "placed about 20 rail hopper cars loaded with rock on the span." The river rose, and rose, and rose some more. Then --
The Cedar Rapids and Iowa City Railway Co. bridge downstream from the Eighth Avenue bridge collapsed into the river at 9:43 a.m. *** The hopper cars are in the river now, too, the railway reports.
Here's a photo of the aftermath:

Northwest Florida residents can relate to what's happening in Iowa perhaps better than most. Severe hurricanes disrupt and threaten life in much the same way. So, too, can out of control fires in the West. And, for that matter, killer blizzards in the North and East.

Now that it's evident we're all in this together, can we at last dispense with the pointless carping about the "moral hazard" of living here, or there, or over yonder? No one is proof against disaster, whether natural or man-made. Everyone is as likely as not to be in need of help from his fellow citizens at some time or another.

Today, it's our distant fellow citizens in the Midwest who need an extra hand. Tomorrow, it could be us.

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