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Cajuns to blame for their own flood misery? Not so fast

It's easy to blame evacuees in Louisiana for living in a floodplain. But a leading flood expert says don't lose sight of this fact: Much of what's happening started way up north.
Part of the Morganza Spillway, seen at top center in this satellite image, has been opened to take pressure off the Mississippi River, seen winding at center right. Homes and farms southwest of the Morganza are being flooded as water makes its way into the Atchafalaya River, at far left, and the river's fertile basin. Levees are seen lining the basin, starting from each side of the spillway's edges. The basin continues south, through towns like Morgan City, before emptying into the Gulf of Mexico.NASA Earth Observatory EO-1 Team / AP
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They deserve this for living in a floodplain. That's the easy response to the evacuations of thousands as Louisiana's Cajun country becomes an outlet for Mississippi River waters that would otherwise swamp New Orleans and Baton Rouge.

But Karen O'Neill, a Rutgers University expert on U.S. flood policy, asks that you consider this: Those evacuees have no control over upstream development — and its impact on the river.

"Much of the U.S. landmass drains to this river system," she notes. (In fact, the Mississippi is the drainage basin for 41 percent of the country.) "Every time someone builds a shopping mall in Illinois or Missouri, water drains to the river that would have formerly filtered into the groundwater locally."

It doesn't help that flooding this year was made that much worse by lots of snow over the winter and then plenty of spring downpours.

"Yes, this river has always flooded," she adds, "but all of the rest of us have made it worse. This is a classic 'downstream' problem, where the people suffering from this added water did not create the problem."

Another issue, and one that Cajuns and others living in this region do bear some responsibility for, is flood insurance.

"As a nation, we have not demanded that insurance (i.e., the federal flood insurance program) reflect the true costs of insuring the most vulnerable lands," says O'Neill, author of "Rivers by Design: State Power and the Origins of U.S. Flood Control."

Many of the affected homeowners do not even have federal flood insurance.

In Krotz Springs, just 51 of 560 homes there have that coverage, In nearby Butte LaRose, 80 percent of the homes lack that insurance.

Some owners cite the expense, and others just don't expect to get flooded — either because they've raised their homes or have never seen flooding there.

Some geography, historyTo understand the latter mindset, consider this: Krotz Springs, Butte LaRose and other threatened towns in Cajun country are technically not in the Mississippi River Basin but in the neighboring Atchafalaya River Basin.

To ease pressure on the Mississippi — and thus Baton Rouge and New Orleans — the Army Corps of Engineers has opened some of the gates at the Morganza Spillway, a dam built for just such an emergency by using the Atchafalaya Basin as a relief valve.

But while helping urban areas during bad flood years, that valve means swamping rural ones.

The Morganza — opened only once before, in 1973 — is one of four spillways built, along with 2,200 miles of levees, after the devastating flood of 1927, when hundreds of people died.

Levees were welcomed but the spillways, or floodways, were quickly opposed by people living in the basins chosen for the potential sacrifice.

One of those was the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway.

In 1937, as a major flood was building, tensions were so high there that some Missouri farmers armed themselves to try to keep the floodway near Cairo, Ill., from opening. The levee was breached only after Missouri's governor deployed the National Guard to keep the peace.

That same floodway was the first to be opened this year, protecting Cairo and other towns but swamping dozens of homes and 130,000 acres of farmland. As it has in the past, Missouri went to court but again lost the legal battle since the U.S. had paid out one-time indemnities to landowners decades earlier.

Still, even if the law makes clear the spillways are legal, it's never going to be an easy decision to open them.

After the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway was opened for the first time back in 1937, the then head of the Army Corps of Engineers voiced regret.

"I am now of the opinion," Maj. Gen. Edward Markham stated, "that no plan is satisfactory which is based upon deliberately turning floodwaters upon the homes and property of people, even though the right to do so may have been paid for in advance."

The future?Looking forward, a key question is whether this year's flooding is a sign of things to come. One scary scenario that the system's never dealt with: repeated high-water flooding over a decade or so.

"We would see more (levee) failures, and more failures means more time and more resources to fix," says Adda Athanasopoulos-Zekkos, a civil engineering associate professor at the University of Michigan. "If there are too many failures and we don’t have enough time or money to fix them, then the next flood will find the system at a more vulnerable state and further expose it."

O'Neill says the uncertainty and growing pressures on the system require a new consensus on flooding.

"The main achievment of the federal program is that few people now die from river flooding. But we have too much land to be able to protect it in the costly ways that the Dutch have" with dikes, she says, so instead policymakers should "make clear that some lands will be sacrificed in floodways and we pay people who farm in those areas when we decide to flood them.

"I liked the program under the Clinton administration that paid people to move from towns that were flooded repeatedly," O'Neill adds, "but my understanding is that this is difficult to implement, even though it may be very cost effective in some places."

As for urban areas, some of those prone to flooding should "become parks or golf courses that we understand will be flooded sometimes."

But she's not optimistic that lessons from past flooding are being applied.

"The main problem for planning is that the federal, state or county governments can come up with plans of all sorts, but in the end it is municipal governments that approve development on private land," she notes. "Their incentives to build are very great, as development raises the value of property and therefore generates more property tax."

Athanasopoulos-Zekkos adds that it's critical to find a balance between development and the protection system.

"The more people and property there is to protect the more the system needs to be expanded," she says. "However, we should apply caution and perhaps not overextend the available resources, because it is better to have a 'smaller' system that works well than a 'bigger one' that doesn't."

"We should assign more floodplains, i.e. areas that we can flood by opening a gate without severe consequences such as displacing people or destroying infrastructure," she adds. "This may require however that areas that are currently populated may need to be permanently vacated, and this is a very sensitive issue."

What about letting the river go back to its natural state?

That "would mean uprooting millions and costing billions," says Athanasopoulos-Zekkos. "We may want to examine whether there are certain regions that we want to do this after performing cost-benefit analyses, but not for the entire system."

The climate factorBoth O'Neill and Athanasopoulos-Zekkos emphasize another factor in the mix: climate change.

"Our climate change models suggest that the variations and extremes of regional climate are likely to change," says O'Neill. "This means we cannot generate reliable estimates of probability. The '100 year flood' is an estimate of probability, and any prediction based on past experience is likely to be wrong."

"I think we should focus on understanding the effect of climate change on the river flow to be able to better predict future flood events," adds the University of Michigan engineer. "This will be the guide for designing new system components (levees, floodgates, etc.) and also for maintaining the existing ones."

Convincing policymakers, engineers and locals to do so could be a challenge, but Athanasopoulos-Zekkos believes it is "crucial to better communicate this process" as well as the risk and "the possible consequences to people who live in affected areas."