The deadly cost of failing infrastructure in historic Midwest floods

So far, historic floods in America’s Midwest have already claimed three lives with others still missing — although the worst may be yet to come.

In Nebraska alone, over 2,000 homes and 340 businesses have been destroyed, leading to over $1 billion in damages. In Iowa, more than 1,200 homes have been extensively damaged or destroyed, with more than $480 million estimated in damage to homes, $300 million to businesses and $214 million to agriculture.

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Farmers and agricultural workers in these states will be hit especially hard as carefully maintained livestock and fields have been destroyed by the water. Officials in Nebraska estimate that over $800 million has been lost in ranching and row crops.

Knowing that experts are predicting that the massive flooding may actually continue through May means that, at the very least, emergency responders, relief organizations and impacted families will have their hands full for the foreseeable future. 

But that this level of flooding happened in the first place has once again revealed an enduring fragility of America’s inferastructure and our inability to prepare for or potentially avoid large-scale disasters.

A confluence of factors contributed to the massive flooding, including greatly increased precipitation, questionable water management decisions and massive run-offs from melting snow. But the fact remains that ineffective levee systems consisting mainly of makeshift mud and soil barriers and at least one frangible dam in Nebraska left the region entirely vulnerable to the catastrophic consequences of this disaster.

The failure of the Spencer dam in Northeast Nebraska is telling. Built in 1927, there have been many warning signs that the dam would not hold up under certain conditions. According to a 2018 report by the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources, “deficiencies exist which would lead to dam failure during rare, extreme events.”  That’s precisely what happened when the 27ft retaining wall collapsed, mainly because of unexpectedly high rates of water flow from the Niobrara River that was filled with huge ice chunks.

Sad to say, this is not first time alarm bells have been raised about the fragility of America’s levees, nor is the Midwest the only region in the U.S. that lives with the on-going threat of dangerously fragile levees and dams.

When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf coast in 2005, grossly inadequate levees failed to contain the water of Lake Pontchartrain, flooding New Orleans, and killing well over 1,000 people. In the aftermath of the disaster, experts looked at the levees and dam infrastructure throughout the U.S., concluding that the levee system was unprepared and underfunded. In the 14 years since Hurricane Katrina, very few of those levees and dams have been repaired or enhanced.

Moreover, according to the National Committee on Levee Safety, no national policies or standards exist on levee effectiveness, and there are no regular assessments of levee security.

I spoke recently with Sheriff Jeff Davis of Sarpy County, Nebraska.  One of the many issues that he finds most frustrating is that, “many of us have felt for years, that those levees were inadequate and needed to be upgraded. Solid, sufficiently high retainer walls could have prevented much of the devastation and heartbreak we’re seeing now”.

This disaster is uniquely problematic as a public health catastrophe. Flood waters reached eight toxic Superfund sites across three states — a potential threat the EPA warned of in a  2014 report that said, “inundation and flooding may lead to transport of contaminants through surface soils, ground water, surface waters and/or coastal waters.

Davis also worried about contamination of the great confluence where the Missouri and Platte Rivers merge. Unfortunately, the floods caused a major sewage plant to malfunction dumping raw sewage into the waters, thereby contaminating vast areas of land in the surrounding region.

What about the psychological impact on families affected by this catstrophic flooding? We can expect that the sudden loss of livelihood, uncertainty about the future and massive disruptions in normal routines for children may well result in severe stress and psychological trauma among thousands of displaced families.

While there are complex factors contributing to more frequent and more severe flooding, we know that unabated climate change is playing a significant role, intensifying rainfall that exacerbates rapidly melting snow from the north. Going forward, greatly increased precipation is an expected consequence of our warming planet.

Still, even as we struggle to agree on strategies to slow climate change, we need to urgently pursue investments in strengthening the nation’s infrastructure.  Surely, in this highly intense political season, there will undoubtedly be no shortage of proposals to “fix and update” all infrastructure, hopefully including the nation’s levees and dams.

But no matter what else our deeply divided nation decides to do, enhanced American resiliency and a 21st-century infrastructure should be objectives even the most partisan among us can get behind.

Irwin Redlener, M.D., is the director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, and professor of Health Policy and Management at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University. Redlener is also president emeritus and co-founder of the Children's Health Fund. He is the author of "Americans at Risk: Why We’re Not Prepared for Megadisasters And What We Can Do Now." Follow him on Twitter @IrwinRedlenerMD