A Brief History of U.S. Flood Policy

We've been trying to conquer floods for generations, but nature keeps reminding us no levee or dam is 100% fail-proof.

Video Transcript

J. DAVID ROGERS: Rivers are the lifeblood of any culture. It's essential to life. We have to remember that the rivers were the highways, the commercial highways, that opened up the United States.

River commerce was how everything moved until the advent of railroads, which began being built starting in 1831. So you really couldn't have farming along the river for very long before you got flooded out. So the Corps of Engineers' responsibility from the late 1830s until 1927 was with riverine navigation.

And in the 1927 flood, it had an enormous impact on all of America and especially on the deep South because everything was underwater, up to 65 miles wide in the Lower Mississippi Valley, for an entire year. And it-- it actually caused a major migration of poor sharecroppers to move out of the deep South, and a lot of them were hired up in Dearborn, Michigan, by Henry Ford. And it mandated that the Army Corps of Engineers get into the flood control business big time.

- And the program is being carried forward by the construction of 56 flood control dams and 246 levees and retaining walls.

J. DAVID ROGERS: The major problem here is, in my view, is that we got too greedy. We got things like bulldozers and scrapers-- the big Earth scrapers-- that got introduced in the 1920s and '30s principally. And we started to go reclaim large tracts of land that have traditionally been flooded.

We diked off 90% of the floodplain, especially on the Missouri River and on the Mississippi. And we didn't leave enough room for the water in a flood year. They didn't foresee the levees failing at that point. It was new technology.

And there was this view that man can conquer nature. What they didn't see coming was aging effects. And in '73, what they saw was exactly what they'd seen in 1927. They had wholesale failures at many places along the lower Mississippi.

They saw the river lose all the efficiency they had spent 40 years putting into the system. It was erased. And it was a huge, huge lesson.

But what came out of Katrina was-- was gigantic. It cost $11 billion to make New Orleans whole. And that cost is justified based on the economic activity and the value of that real estate that was impacted by the flooding.

It's a game-changer, though, because everybody saw what was looming on the horizon is bankruptcy, that the difficult decisions in the future are going to be what you prioritize, who-- who gets to go front in line and get funding because there's lots more people waiting in line than you have money to-- to fix. It's kind of a train wreck from my point of view because we haven't gotten out of the 1960s yet on all the protocols and 1940s on a lot of the protocols that we're obliged to operate under. Man can do all sorts of improvements, but you can't rest because nature is going to come back and do its work.