WHAT OTHERS SAY: Why do tornadoes teach us lessons but not floods?

Tuesday, May 22, 2012 | 4:54 p.m. CDT

Comparing how communities respond to floods and how they respond to tornadoes offers a contrast in urgency.

Perhaps tornadoes, like the one that devastated Joplin and killed 161 people a year ago Tuesday, get immediate attention because they pop up out of nowhere with little warning. We improve early warning systems, install shelters, rewrite building codes.

Rivers, though, are with us always. We drive over the Missouri and Mississippi rivers daily, barely noticing their might. Viewed from the deck of a bridge, their power seems tame.

Maybe that is why every time a big flood hits us, in some cases ravaging massive areas of the Midwest, leaving thousands of acres and entire towns under water for days and weeks at a time, we are slow to get the point.

We know the river will flood. It does. And every time, we rebuild the same levees, maybe piling the dirt a little higher, and we wait for the next one.

Someday, perhaps, we will learn.

This year, the environmental advocacy group American Rivers is trying to bring attention to that historic failure. The stand-pat attitude in the wake of last year's Missouri River flood has earned the river a designation as one of the 10 most endangered rivers in the country by that organization.

The problem is that Congress, responding to the same old political pressure from farm and barge lobbies, is refusing to learn the lesson of past floods: The river needs room to roam.

Only when that lesson is taken to heart will regular massive flooding be mitigated. Only then will commerce be less interrupted every decade or two when Mother Nature forces the river out of its banks. Only when the river is allowed to mimic its original meandering ways can the Big Muddy again be the precious natural resource that it once was.

Sadly, despite some early hope that Congress was learning from the past and getting over river differences that were more geographic than partisan, there has been little progress since late last summer. That's when Missouri senators Roy Blunt, a Republican, and Claire McCaskill, a Democrat, reached across the aisle with their fellow senators from other river basin states to form a Missouri River working group.

The answer to the Missouri River flooding problem is the same as it was in 1944, when the federal Flood Control Act suggested much wider flood plains along the Missouri River from south of Sioux City, Iowa, all the way to St. Louis. That's the same answer suggested after the historic Flood of 1993.

And it's the same this year. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is saying that increased reservoir space behind big upriver dams would not prevent future flooding without a larger flood plain.

The fix, while not easy to accomplish, is well known. The political will, however, is weak. Agricultural and barge interests are resisting.

Today, we remember Joplin, and we see how a community can rebuild and come back strong.

But with the rivers, we merely raise our helpless hands to the sky and beg Mother Nature to have mercy on us.

That's not much of a solution.

Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission. Questions? Contact Opinion editor Elizabeth Conner.

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