More on Flood Control: The Missouri River, the Levees, and the Gavins Point and Spencer Dams

By Lambert Strether of Corrente.

Alert reader DG threw the following article from Richard Oswald in The Daily Yonder over the transom: “Letter from Langdon: 40 Feet High and Rising.” DG comments:

It’s a heart-breaking, vivid description of what happened and is happening now to a farmer in what he had thought was land above the Nebraska/Missouri River floodplains….

Texas never really left me in important ways, so Osborne’s plaints may have struck a deeper chord in me than a “regular” urbanite. I wept. As we go into 2020 politics (did we ever leave ’16?) and some form of the GND, this climate-cum-political catastrophe may loom higher than anything AOC or Trump has to say.

You might wish to read the article in full. This post, however, will, much like the Missouri once did and is still trying to do, meander through three waypoints that seem to illuminate the flood control situation on the Missouri (which seems to me to be too complex to assign blame, based on the level of effort I was able to put into research for this post). These waypoints are the levees, the dams, and the Army Corps of Engineers, which has the major role (though not complete) in managing the river system. I’ll put quotes from Oswald in italics, and then comment on them.

The Levees

Oswald begins by writing of his home:

My home was built by my parents on a high portion of “second bottom” in the Missouri River valley in Atchison County, Missouri. For 80 years the river never touched it. Second bottoms are accreted soil shoved up and out by the prehistoric river … or maybe glaciers. People had built homes there for decades before my parents built theirs in the late 1930’s. That was before flood control on the Missouri….

Then the big public works started. Dams and levees were built to slow floods and keep them inside manmade boundaries. And for the most part it worked. Other than a flash snowmelt flood on fragile, newly built levees in 1952, we were safe from flooding for 41 years until 1993, during one of the wettest summers on record. After that we were safe again for 18 years until 2011, when massive flooding, brought about by Army Corps mismanagement, destroyed my crops and kept me away from my home for four months.

Now, eight years later, the river is back—bigger and taller than ever.

The New York Times describes the condition of the levees:

“Breaches everywhere: multiple, multiple breaches,” said Tom Bullock, the top elected official in Holt County, Mo., where crews were rushing last week to patch a leaking levee that, if it failed completely, would flood the small town of Fortescue.

And with the fear of more floods in the coming years — and perhaps even the coming weeks — many people said living and farming near the water might not be viable much longer without major changes.

On the river-specked Midwestern prairie, the thousands of miles of levees are an insurance policy against nature’s whims that, at their best, keep cropland and towns dry, floodwaters at bay and the agriculture-driven economy churning. But the levees are aging, subject to uneven regulation and, in many cases, never designed to withstand the river levels seen in the last decade.

I’m not sure who to blame for this, except perhaps the elites who ran the country like a tear-down for the last forty years; I mean, if we can’t manage to build a new tunnel under the Hudson for the Northeast Corridor — which elites ride through every day on the Acela! — when we know, for a certainty, that the current tunnel will fail, what can we do? Probably not restore and refresh an enormous public works project. We could do that ninety years ago. Just not today.

The Dams

The flooding comes:

But, in the last week, the Corps said we were headed for an all-time new high crest of just over 46 feet. Most of it would come from below Gavins Point, which is beyond the Corps’ control. The flood was the result of rapid snowmelt and rain. That crest would be higher than 2011 at 44.79 feet. Sandbagging would be pointless, and no one would be permitted on levees during the rise. But they also said it would be fast up and fast down because it was runoff from a single event. Most levees in good repair could possibly stand up to the brief overflow being predicted. Unfortunately, that didn’t take into account a 92-year-old earthen dam [the Spencer dam] on Nebraska’s Niobrara River, where something called a bomb cyclone ruined the dam, releasing a wall of water onto farms and pastures, washing away crops and livestock, and finding its way into Gavins Point dam at the forefront of Missouri River flood control.

Gavins Point is the last line of defense against Missouri River flooding in four states. It’s designed to meter upstream water into the river, not contain it. So when big water hits Big Muddy at Gavins Point, about all the authorities at Gavins Point can do is say “look out below.”

On Thursday, March 14, that’s what they did.

The New York Times describes the Army Corps of Engineers decision making process at the Gavin’s Point Dam:

Gavins Point is relatively small, not designed to hold back that kind of inflow. But losing the dam would be catastrophic.

To save Gavins Point, [John Remus, the chief of the Army Corps’ Missouri River Basin Water Management Division] ordered its spillways opened. At its peak, 100,000 cubic feet of water per second, the same as Niagara Falls, poured into a river already surging toward record heights.

Let me meander just a moment to the Corps’ decision-making process not in times of crisis:

Mr. Remus’s stewardship of the river is guided by a 432-page document, the Master Manual, which lays out the eight congressionally authorized purposes he must balance. They are flood control, river navigation, hydroelectric power, irrigation, water supply, water quality, recreation (such as fishing or boating), and the preservation of endangered species.

One problem with that: The Master Manual does not explicitly tell Mr. Remus which is more important [now; see below]. Thus the eight purposes exist in a near constant state of tension.

Close meander. So when the Spencer Dam on the Niobrara River collapsed, that threatened to collapse the Gavins Point Dam on the Missouri, and so Mr. Remus opened its floodgates, submerging Mr. Oswald’s farm. But why did the Spencer Dam collapse? From the Omaha News:

Records obtained by The World-Herald indicated that the dam was last inspected in April 2018 and rated in “fair” condition.

But the report from the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources carried an ominous warning about the concrete and earthen structure: “deficiencies exist which could lead to dam failure during rare, extreme storm events.”

Officials with the Nebraska Public Power District, which operates Spencer Dam as a hydropower facility, said that while four deficiencies were noted in the 2018 inspection, most were minor and all had been addressed.

Oopsie. More:

Becker, the spokesman for the power district, and Spencer, who oversees the district’s hydroelectric plants, said two workers were at Spencer Dam on the night of March 13-14, monitoring the rising water amid a blizzard that residents said left 3 to 4 inches of snow on the ground, preceded by 2 inches of rain.

The workers, Spencer said, had opened some of the five “stop-log” gates on the dam, per emergency procedure when water levels are high, but were blocked from removing more because beams that held the gates in place were frozen. He said that when workers realized that water was overtopping the earthen portion of the dam, they evacuated.

Not a good night at the office. Here’s an aerial survey of the Spencer Dam, after its collapse:

11-foot wall of water: One dam breaks, three counties suffer

I’m not sure who to point the finger of blame at here, either, except I wonder if the Nebraska Public Power District thinks of itself as in the power business, not the flood control business, much as PG&E thinks of itself as in the power business, not the tree-trimming business.

The Corps of Engineers

One is always optimistic at the beginning:

At first I was optimistic about this spring. The Corps had carried the river high all fall and winter, making room for rain and snowmelt that was sure to come. A judge found in favor of farmers who sued the Corps for its mismanagement and failure to adhere to basic tenets of flood control.

So, what is this court case? The Missouri River Flood Case site explains:

Ideker Farms, Inc., et al. v. United States of America, Case No. 14-183L, is brought by farmers, landowners and business owners from six states who sustained losses from one or more floods occurring in 2006, 2007, 2008, 2010, 2011, 2013 and 2014. Flooding continued in 2015, 2016 and 2017. Plaintiffs are asserting that the Corps’ priority for flood control and the policies and procedures, which endeavored to protect landowners near the river from flooding, changed by 2004 to conform to environmental laws and regulations. Charging that the Corps’ actions have violated the takings clause of the Fifth Amendment that bars the Government from taking private property without just compensation, Plaintiffs are seeking reasonable and just compensation for losses caused by the flooding. The suit is not a class action, nor is it a suit predicated on the Corps’ mismanagement of the river.

(I’m not a lawyer, but I think that’s a really neat theory of the case, agree or disagree.) And — back to the meander above — the Master Manual played a key evidentiary role. From the Court’s decision in Ideker Farms, Inc., et al. v. United States of America:

The Master Manual was revised in 2006 to reflect the Corps’ approach. Both the 2004 and 2006 Master 23 Manuals, hereafter the “new Master Manual,” struck the language in the 1979 Master Manual providing a sequential priority of the FCA-authorized purposes in operating the System. Instead of giving flood control first priority and fish and wildlife last priority, the new Section VII.7-01 of the Master Manual provides that, in operating the System, the Corps will “balance [the FCA] functions in order to obtain the optimum development and utilization of the water resources of the Missouri River basin to best serve the needs of the people.” PX4 at USACE0002644; PX196. The new Master Manual also contains two significant operational guidelines that are at issue in this litigation. First, the new Master Manual authorizes the Corps to keep a larger amount of water in the reservoirs for the benefit of other purposes, including fish and wildlife. PX117-A at PLTF-00008836; PX756. In this connection, the Corps acknowledges that during years of high early runoff from rain and snowpack melt above the System dams, if the System does not have enough storage to impound all of the runoff, the Corps may have to choose between making higher early releases, even if that would likely wash away nesting birds and contribute to early flooding downstream, or holding more water in the reservoirs and hope that spring rains are below normal. See, e.g., PX10; Tr. 4620:5-4626:22. Second, the new Master Manual addresses the need to return the River to having more varied river stages for the benefit of T&E species.

In essence, the farmers are saying that if the Corps wants to prioritize habitat over flood control, that’s fine, but when the floods happen and damage the farmer’s land, that’s a taking, for which the farmers should be compensated. The video above gives a fine example of what “more varied river stages” might mean in practice.

Again, I’m not sure where to point the finger of blame. I do wonder, however, what would happen if the Missouri were granted personhood, like Lake Erie. It does seem to me that the Missouri “wants to” meander, and as climate change continues and intensifies, will more and more get what it wants. All of which is not to say that the farmers should not be compensated.


All this takes place against very bad financial conditions for farmers, partly after the flood:

“The typical response on flood relief is groups like the Red Cross show up with paper towels and rubber gloves and scrub buckets,” said Oswald, 69, who does not expect to be able to get to his home or land for weeks. “The biggest thing farmers need is cash, or ways to access funds.”

“Flood insurance isn’t going to cover this worth a darn. FEMA is worthless,” said Olson, who farms 3,000 acres near Tekamah, Nebraska and runs a farm equipment business. “They don’t have any money, nobody has any money.”

But more largely because of debt:

Debt in the agrarian economy has hit levels last seen during the U.S. farm collapse of the 1980s.

The Nebraska Rural Response Hotline, which provides support to farmers and ranchers, has received a record number of calls about financial distress, said John Hansen, president of the Nebraska Farmers Union. Calls about suicide and depression were up, too, he said.

Presumably, we’re not going to write off the Farm Belt as we did Puerto Rico (Maria) or the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans (Katrina), especially in an election year. Naturally, a disaster declaration has ben issued (at least for Iowa and Nebraska), but it’s not the disaster that’s the issue. It’s the new normal. What to do? I’m not sure “flood control” is the answer, especially if we want to use soil and grass in the heartland as carbon sinks. The Missouri is a meandering sort of person…

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. Epistrophy

    Thank you Lambert. This is a heartbreaking account and I hope there is compensation for the farmers affected.

    You wrote:

    … seems to me to be too complex to assign blame, based on the level of effort I was able to put into research for this post …

    As an Engineer I can reliably say that these types of problems are very complex and you are wise in your assessment above. Climate could be an issue, or it could be any number of other factors. This is where probability meets climate meets upstream development patterns meets river management meets watershed management meets wildlife management meets government policy. All of these factors have contributed no doubt but there is also the pure randomness of nature of which no one can control or predict with any certainty.

  2. rd

    Here is the National Levee Database managed by USACE:

    These are the known levees and are based on data from a wide variety of sources. Most levees are not built and managed by the USACE. Instead they are built and managed by local drainage districts. Recent studies have been showing that about 40% of levees are over-built above permitted heights which shifts flooding to other areas.

    I think the USACE has a nearly impossible task which is under-funded to boot. The 2017 ASCE Report Card has US Dams, Levees, and Inland Waterways (includes channels, locks etc.) all rated as “D” on a national average.

    Let’s see how these Mid-West areas that are reliant on dams, levees, and navigable waterway infrastructure to prevent flooding stack up against that national average. After all, flooding is a virtually existential crisis where it can be difficult for individuals, small companies and small towns to survive and recover. Specific grades for individual states that have done ASCE state report cards are:

    Iowa: Dams “D”; Inland Waterways “D”; Levees “C-”
    Kansas: Dams “C-“; Levees “C”
    Nebraska (No Report Card – 149 High Hazard Dams; 419 miles of levees)
    Illinois: Dams “C”; Navigable Waterways “D-”
    Missouri: Dams “D-“; Navigable Waterways “D”; Levees “D+”

    On average, the grades in the four states with state-specific report cards have a “D+” average for these three infrastructure elements, so marginally better than the national average but not by much. You would not expect a D+ system to do well in design event scenarios. You would generally be looking for B- or higher to have a high degree of confidence that most or all of the system elements would survive without failing during the event, even if they require some repairs afterwards.

    So we have a system that is generally rated from “D” to “C” due to political inaction and chronic under-funding and everybody is surprised that intense floods are wreaking havoc? This has been a choice to defer action and spending to a future date in the hopes that an event like this won’t happen. We are now seeing the consequences.

    1. Wukchumni

      Say, there’s a 7.5 earthquake centered on the Hayward Fault, and kiss the levees on the California Delta goodbye, along with the main artery that brings largess from the giant dams in the north of the state to SF and points south, as salt water would get mixed in, rendering all of the water useless…

  3. Anon

    I don’t have the time to go into detail on the inevitability of major flooding on major river systems (even small ones). Small reservoirs/dams consume/destroy more natural habitat than large ones per acre foot of water stored. Large dams cost more than small dams. Spilling water from any dam is better than allowing the dam to be overtopped. No amount of reservoir/dam and levee system will contain a hydrologic event that saturates all of the hydrologic basin. The natural control for storm events is a large floodplain (which are now constricted by levees protecting encroaching farms, farm houses, and in some cases whole towns). The Nebraska catastrophe was inevitable; and likely not the last.

    Blame cultural chutzpah for the gamble being made with river engineering and large storm events. They cannot be controlled. Read “The Flood Control Controversy” by Luna Leopold, then read his larger explanation of river dynamics in “A View of the River”. (Luna Leopold (deceased, 2006) was the son of Aldo Leopold– “A Sand County Almanac”.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      > The natural control for storm events is a large floodplain

      Thank you for this concise summary. My intuition was groping toward something like this.

      Now, if we had the greenhouse gas implications of that…. My intuition also being that a floodplain is a carbon sink.

  4. a different chris

    Man I wish they would refer to it as the Niobrara dam since a guy actually named “Spencer” made his way into the story. Distracting.

    Anyway, not sure but is this “neat theory” that you’re referring to?

    Charging that the Corps’ actions have violated the takings clause of the Fifth Amendment that bars the Government from taking private property without just compensation,

    They didn’t take any property. The property is still there. The river was on top of it for a short while but it has receded. But when you get lawyers involved I guess this kind of crap comes up. Next time it rains inconveniently I will complain to the local authorities.

    1. Lynne

      But property is more than just the physical dirt. It’s a bundle of rights involving the piece of dirt, its subsurface, its airspace, and the uses the owner can put it all to. Similarly, water rights include rights of use, diversion, etc.

    2. RepubAnon

      Yes, I’m having a real problem with calling the flood a “taking” simply because the Corps of Engineers didn’t favor the farmers over everyone else. One might as well sue the cities upstream, whose storm drains and expanded subdivisions mean there’s less prairie to absorb the rain. One could also see the folks making money off sport fishing, or river navigation, claiming that favoring the farmers was “taking” their property interests.

      Then, of course, there’s levees. Levees don’t prevent flooding, they merely move it to spots with lower levees.

      If they were to, say, set up a long park along the river with plenty of meander room, and let that flood periodically, it might be easier on everyone.

      1. Lambert Strether Post author

        > I’m having a real problem with calling the flood a “taking” simply because the Corps of Engineers didn’t favor the farmers over everyone else.

        But that was the original rule in the Manual.

  5. rd

    The quotes below are some of the last paragraphs from the article cited at the top. As you read these, it is important to realize that many of the Representatives and Senators from these states have reliably voted “No” on increased infrastructure spending. Meanwhile, Kansas elected Sam Brownback governor along with a Republican legislature that ran on and governed using platforms focused on tax cuts and slashed government spending. Other legislatures and governors in the areas weren’t quite as cut-throat on government spending but have let infrastructure languish.

    “Deep in the dysfunctional political mix these days are talks about improvements to infrastructure. While most of the time that refers to highways and bridges, flood control and navigation on our nations waterways falls under that heading, too. Longer, straighter wider smoother highways are at the top of a list where lowly citizens like me and my problems barely register. But the impact of my disaster is clearly visible on old U.S. Highways 75 in Nebraska and 59 in Missouri. Locals have taken to calling those two-lane roads Interstate 75 and Interstate 59, because they now carry the cars and trucks that used to zip by on the superhighway.

    Flooding is everyone’s problem, even on a mountain top, when transportation, goods, and services are impacted.

    Few people would consider my ’30’s era home state of the art. Fewer still would consider a highway or bridge of the same vintage to be so. But we are relying on systems for navigation and flood control in America today that are just that old.

    Politics should be the furthest thing from homeless flood victims’ minds as they mourn their loss and face uncertainty. That’s when traditional farmer skepticism toward people who say “I’m from the government and I’m here to help” turns more toward anticipation and hope that they actually might. Even some rigidly conservative farmers are turning back the clock with references not to progressives’ latest label “climate change” but flooding caused by “global warming,” that scorned and seemingly forgotten early label for carbon-dioxide-related floods, droughts, and rising sea levels. It’s possible some of the same people were making jokes last winter about standing in 15 inches of fluffy freshly fallen global warming.

    When terminology and ideology become deciding factors of cooperation or lack of it, it’s difficult to agree on a solution, let alone the problem.”

    1. Lynne

      RD, when you say,

      Other legislatures and governors in the areas weren’t quite as cut-throat on government spending but have let infrastructure languish

      keep in mind that legislatures, governors, and Tribes are allowed ZERO effective say in what the Corps of Engineers do. They’ve tried and gotten nowhere.

      1. rd

        USACE controls a few river flow structures and reservoirs, but not all (e.g. the dam that failed was not a USACE dam). They provide permitting for levees etc. but they didn’t build and don’t maintain most of the levees themselves. It turns out that USACE permit requirements have actually been ignored in the construction of many of the local levees.

        So much of the flood control infrastructure is actually funded by local flood control districts and states. If things are failing due to poor construction or maintenance, that is generally a local thing not due to the USACE. In the Ideker et al case cited above, only some of the levee breaks and overtopping were found to be caused by USACE water level management.

        In Harris County, Texas the local community actually built a subdivision inside a USACE flood control reservoir and built housing and commercial along the flood release channel, so USACE flooded a subdivision by operating the reservoir as designed during Harvey and then got complaints when places along the flood release channel were flooded when they were releasing water form the reservoir.

        I think there is far too much expectation on what the USACE can actually accomplish, especially given its low level of funding over the past 30 years. These are complex systems and the USACE, states, and local governments need to work together. The failure to do this is causing people to have a lot of false confidence with disastrous results. USACE needs to do a better job working with the locals, but the states and local governments need to step up as well with additional funding and management.

        1. Epistrohy

          In Harris County, Texas the local community actually built a subdivision inside a USACE flood control reservoir …

          Bingo. This type of development, even if out of the flood control area but still somewhere within the contributing watershed, completely alters the runoff patterns and this is the first place I would look. It is a major reason why the 100-year floods prediction has become so unreliable (even though the basis of this prediction technique was also, at the time, very crude).

    2. flora

      Meanwhile, Kansas elected Sam Brownback governor along with a Republican legislature that ran on and governed using platforms focused on tax cuts and slashed government spending.

      Yes, entirely true. What is not well known, however, is that being from a farming family in western Kansas, where access to usable water can’t be taken for granted (little surface water and shrinking ground water resources), former gov. Brownback was actually keenly aware of the importance of sustainable water resources and water management. On this one issue he seemed non-partisan. I’ve said much against Brownback for the reasons you list (I’m very glad he’s not gov anymore) but I give him credit on the Kansas water issues.

  6. Lynne

    I may comment later on the Corps of Engineers and their record of disastrous misjudgments, arrogance, and contempt for the people of the Great Plains (I still recall getting a notice from my water board that the Corps had told them, “Hey, you may not get any water from the Missouri this year. You might want to find some other water source.” AFTER opening the floodgates and decimating parts of SD years ago). But in response to this sentence in the post:

    As we go into 2020 politics (did we ever leave ’16?) and some form of the GND, this climate-cum-political catastrophe may loom higher than anything AOC or Trump has to say.

    This has been a mind-boggling example of how the Democrats have completely written off the central part of the US and how they seem to revel in political malpractice. I am not a huge fan of Facebook, but have to be on it at least some for various reasons. It’s the primary source of information about what’s going on in this area. “This area” being central SD and NE. So I watched from my snowbound home (literally 6-12 foot drifts blocked my doors) in horrified fascination as this unfolded. Trump first tweeted his support for Nebraska on March 15. On March 18, Trump tweeted about flooding in South Dakota and Iowa. Devastating pictures began to fill my feed, including one picture that showed a lone cross standing in water that stretched to the horizon. Desperate posts began to show up, as did offers of help and short videos of people pitching in to haul hay, etc.

    From the Democrats: CRICKETS. Actually, crickets make more noise than they did. Then Trevor Noah posted a condescending blurb about how too many people paid attention to Trump’s tweets and HE was going to concentrate on what was important. Of course, that did not include any of the flooding, of which he said not one word.

    Meanwhile, heartrending posts continued to come in from people on their last legs, along with horrifying video of Spencer Dam, reports of massive surges, etc. Finally, one Nebraska woman shared a story about how people from California and New York had visited her page to send her diatribes about how she deserved everything bad that might happen to her and her children because she raised calves.

    I watched as the news media kept writing stories about Russia, Russia, Russia and completely ignored what was happening. There was a story linked from here about the flooding, and the comments on the story itself went on at some length about how they commenters felt sorry for African flooding victims, but thought people in the US got what they deserved. Yes, they think children deserve to suffer because they believe the children’s parents voted for Trump.

    The NYTimes had on its front page a big story about lions in Senegal, but nothing about the central part of the US. And from the Democrats: NOTHING. How do we not conclude that Democrats don’t believe climate change matters. AOC was happy to get publicity about the GND, but she gave no indication of thinking the real people actually affected by this matter. And you can’t tell me that people didn’t know. Given how they obsessively follow Donald Trump’s tweets, they must have noticed he was sending a few about catastrophes in their own country.

    So: you can rest assured that FB has tons of people in the central part of the US who saw Trump’s tweets and the way that Democrats either ignored or vilified them, and don’t think they won’t remember that in 2020. But the Democrats will probably say it’s because of Russia.

    1. Cal2

      What happens when flyover country goes on a federal tax strike?
      Who pays for the Blue Coasts costs?

      Reverse austerity?

        1. The Rev Kev

          I’m not sure if what you say may be entirely accurate. OK, agreed that the blue States pay more in taxes that red States. Now go one step further. What is the source for the wealth of those blue areas? I am going out on a limb and say that the source of that wealth is the red State’s resources. Take a look at a map of the United States with most areas being red now. Where are all the farming regions, the mines, the forests and the like? I bet that they lie in those red areas.
          If you want a direct example, consider the fact that the Appalachians are notorious for their poverty. And yet that same area has those massive mining operations that literally take the top of the mountains. Should this region be not wealthy through all that mining then? If not, then where is all the wealth generated going to then if it is not going locally? It is almost like they are saying to the people there ‘Hey, we’re gunna take all your mineral wealth but that is OK as we will pay for your SNAP payments later. Obviously what I say is very simplistic but I think that there is a hard core of truth there as well.

          1. Lynne

            Yes, RK, it is simplistic but true at its core. One little tidbit: the federal government is a large landowner in many of those states and, although they can’t be made to pay real estate taxes, they make what are called PILTs, or payment in lieu of taxes. A few years ago, there was a class action lawsuit because while the law requires PILTs, the feds weren’t making them in full because Congress did not appropriate the money for it. Too bad they didn’t just take THAT out of the military’s appropriations, huh? I believe (although not certain) that PILTs show up in Wyoming’s charts as transfers into the states, like welfare.

          2. Wyoming

            Rev Kev

            It has been decades since the resources of the US were the main drivers of wealth. The main drivers of wealth are high tech and the service industries. I am sure you know that from having read so many of your posts here on NC. In fact the wealth pump oriented towards the red states was much stronger before many of them started generating their own growth in these economic areas – Texas for instance.

            I would also note that many red state citizens and especially their politicians seem to conveniently forget that, while they bitterly complain about the welfare payments of various kinds which go to poor city people, they are having huge amounts of welfare payments pumped into the red states (or mainly conservative areas). Farm subsidies (former farm owner here), grazing lands rented at below market rates, various mineral subsidies, etc. Yes I agree you were being simplistic, but you are also mostly mistaken.

          3. Chad boudreau

            Feels like there is both more and less of the truth there than you say.

            Most of the economy is knowledge based now…but we sure do love giving scholarships to your bright kids and taking them away.

            And although it’s true that if the blue states stopped paying, most red states would collapse…its also true that the blue states typically fight for higher taxes and more federal spending. And the types of spending we favor would disproportionately benefit red states (at least in the near term, since they are beginning with more needs.)

            For instance, some of us would really like it if your kids could go to quality colleges there, so that the desire for education doesn’t destroy smaller places. We love the people who wander into our states from yours, but god damn that should be a choice not a necessity.

            (Yes, I’m aware of the rediculously high number of quality universities in every region, but I am being a bit hyperbolic)

            Who stops that from happening? The representatives sent to Washington from red states

    2. Wyoming


      I volunteer for a disaster relief organization which sends us all over America to help people in need. Many of my team members are in the mid-West helping right now. We are at every disaster this country faces. A huge percentage of our organization are Democrats (or in my case a Socialist). We don’t ask you what your politics are and we don’t discuss politics with anyone. We just come to help.

      But I would be lying if I said I was not insulted and angry about the way you speak and I deeply resent it. If you actually were involved deeply in this type of problem and how our country deals with it you would either hold your tongue or you would speak in the same inappropriate way about Republicans. For example: In Sept 2017 Hurricane Maria absolutely leveled Puerto Rico. The damage there was a 100 times worse than what you have experienced. My organization is still there after 18 months working to help them try and put their lives back together. This Republican administration treated those largely Democratic Americans as if they came from some ‘shit hole’ country and did a criminally negligent job of helping them. Then recently Trump says he wants to cut disaster aid for them from the meager amounts they were getting. Just as an FYI there are still almost 50,000 houses in Puerto Rico without roofs on them – and people are living in a great many of them since they have no where else to go. If you think the children where you live are being treated badly how about the children of Puerto Rico, or we could ask the people of Paradise, CA who had 18,000 houses burn to the ground (mostly conservatives in that part of the state btw) what they think of Trump saying he does not think they deserve aid – because California liberal scumbags!

      This county is crumbling as we can all see. Carrying hatred can only make it worse.

      1. Lynne

        Wyoming, don’t shoot the messenger. You’re insulted and angry, and you think it’s inappropriate to point out the Democratic Party is blowing it *again*? The situation in Puerto Rico has been the subject of several posts on NC, and as is typical, the Democratic Party did a lousy job of promoting their cause. Trump did exactly the same with Puerto Rico as he has done with the middle of the country in this: he sent out a few tweets sympathizing with the people on the ground and praising the aid workers. The primary difference *in the optics* is that the Democratic Party made at least a half-hearted attempt at criticizing him for the government’s pathetic response. In the case of Iowa and Nebraska, the only politician that is aspiring to (or claiming) national leadership in the Democratic Party I see making noises is Bernie Sanders, and many democrats would tell you he’s not one of them.

        When it comes to Paradise and the California fires, that was different in that Trump was obviously an ignorant idiot and the press and democrats nailed him for it. But the people affected were from California, so they cared.

        *Note I stress the difference is in the optics. As NC has covered in the past, aid to an island is significantly different than aid to part of a large land mass. But I’m talking about the politics of it, and at this stage, the optics is where it’s at in politics.

        1. Wyoming


          What you are losing in your liberal hatred and Alex Jones type of conspiracy stuff is that you are not being treated worse than everyone else. Those evil Dems are actually not out to get you. It is also a Republican President in charge and if he wanted to he could force extra resources your way. Your disaster is not even in the full clean up stage yet in any case as the flooding could go on for a couple of months yet and that will prevent a lot of work being done for some time.

          You are still in the very early stages of this disaster. It will go on for at least a year. These big events are beyond fixing anymore. We just do our best to stabilize the situation and move onto the next one. The govt has no where near enough resources to pay for fixing things (and lets not forget they do not actually have the responsibility to do it either – private property and markets after all). Visit the 9th ward of New Orleans and see the bare foundations of houses some 14 years later, the 50,000 roofless houses with kids getting rained on in their sleep in Puerto Rico, the houses in Houston/North Carolina/Florida where the residents are living with sheets nailed to the walls for privacy after having to tear their soaked drywall out. I could go on. We are overwhelmed with disasters and with climate change getting worse the situation will never improve and the time will eventually come when no one shows up with anything.

          No one ever recovers from these big events and the only ultimate payers are the local citizens after the initial push by the govt to stabilize the situation (that is their only actual responsibility) and the outside organizations like the one I belong to coming in to help – we stay for as long as our money lasts. But beyond that you are on your own just like everyone else.

          Anyway that is it for me on this thread as I don’t want your attitude to make me want to avoid coming out your way to help with the cleanup.

          1. rd

            The Mid-West flooding is so recent that it was included in the House disaster bill because it hadn’t occurred yet. The Senate Democrats basically want to add the Mid-West flooding to the House bill which is where Trump blew a gasket because he doesn’t want the Puerto Rico aid that is in the House bill.

            1. Lynne

              When I spoke of political malpractice, I was not talking about disaster bills or semi-private aid. I was talking about the complete absence (aside from Bernie Sanders) of signs of awareness. People like to be acknowledged, to know that their basic humanity is *seen* by others. And in situations like this, how much would it cost for the Democrats in power or wanting to be in power to send a few tweets? Instead, they have done the exact opposite: either ignored people in need, ridiculed them, blamed them, or flatly told those people they were not important. Not good politics, at all. As much as I can’t stand Trump, he gets that and makes hay from it.

      2. Michael Fiorillo

        Hello Wyoming,

        Could you please send a link to the organization you’re working with; I’d be interested in knowing more about it and possibly participating. Thanks.

    3. drumlin woodchuckles

      ” Finally, one Nebraska woman shared a story about how people from California and New York had visited her page to send her diatribes about how she deserved everything bad that might happen to her and her children because she raised calves.”

      There are PETA members who do feel that way. Do they only live in California and New York? If that was a non false-flag message from non black-advance non ratfuckers, then that is pretty bad. If that was a false-flag message from Roger Stone-type black-advance ratfuckers pretending to be petavegans or whatever from California and New York, then that is bad in a different way.

      That woman in Nebraska will have more important things to do than saving those posts for forensic trace-back. Still, one sincerely wishes ( or at least I sincerely wish), that there will be some way for some expert to track these messages back and see who or what they actually came from.

      1. Lynne

        Yes, I have seen PETA demonstrations while visiting Lawrence, Kansas, so who knows. I hadn’t even considered the possibility of Roger Stone-type false flags, but mainly that was because I believe the Republican establishment gives no more notice of flyover country than the Democratic establishment and wouldn’t bother. I doubt she would track them but you are right, it might be interesting.

        1. drumlin woodchuckles

          She would probably be no more able to track them than I would be, because she is probably no more of a computerologist than I am.

          But it would be interesting to someday have some forensic computerologists do a painstaking walk-back on those hate-messages to see where they really truly came from . . . and from whom.

        2. drumlin woodchuckles

          I have read that Lawrence, Kansas is a liberal college town. So I can see PETA demonstrators feeling safe there.

          I hope those PETAs go hold a demonstration in Dodge City. The results could be amusing.

    4. Lambert Strether Post author

      > This has been a mind-boggling example of how the Democrats have completely written off the central part of the US and how they seem to revel in political malpractice

      Combine that with falling life expectancy, and if they want to create a militant white nationalist movement, they are proceeding in exactly the right way. Insane as that would be for all concerned, including the locals. All the locals.

      I’m sure if I headed over to Kos right now, I’d see snickering because Nebraska voted from Trump.

      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        One way to perhaps head that off and delay or prevent the White Racial Grievance Solidarity which the RPOCs and the Democrats are calling into existence would be . . . for those White people who know they are descended from Indentured Servants or White Convicts from the British Isles to form a Movement to deMAND repaRAtions for the effects of Indentured Servitude and Involuntary Convict Exile. They could call themselves ADOISACE ( ” ado- eye-sace”) which stands for American Descendants Of Indentured Servitude And Convict Exile.

        That might pre-emptively lock up some White people from joining the White Rights movement . . . or groups like NOFEAR ( National Organization For European American Rights) which, by the way, actually exists. But it is apparently name-changed to EURO now.

    5. c_heale

      Yet people in the cities depend on the countryside for their food. How stupid some of them are.

      1. Eclair

        One of the more depressing aspects of traveling through the areas that are directly affected by this flooding in the Dakotas and Nebraska, Missouri, Iowa and Kansas, is the realization that there is nothing edible being grown there.

        Well, it’s edible after being harvested, trucked, stored, trucked, processed, poured into tank cars, processed some more, slaughtered, trucked, additionally processed, trucked, etc. There is no field you can walk into, pick something ripe and juicy, and eat it out of hand. It’s hundreds of miles of feed corn, soybeans and some wheat. Maybe alfalfa.

        (I exaggerate, slightly. There are occasional orchards. But a large, and rapidly growing, share of our fruits and vegetables are imported from Mexico. Including: avocados, tomatoes, strawberries, raspberries and blackberries, cucumbers, peppers, squash. If Trump closes the border and our avocado supply is cut off, we may have to cancel next year’s Super Bowl. And, that’s serious stuff, people!)

        1. jrs

          Yea my shock about well not exactly that area but parts of the midwest, miles of farms and no food to eat. Surprised this CA native.

          And yes the Mexican imports thing, not good. It’s now like 40% of produce. And why are they better equipped to grow food anyway, they aren’t better suited for climate change etc..

          Those Mexican avocados are grown on clearcut forests, so cancel the damn Super Bowl. Enough.

        2. rd

          Corn for ethanol and cattle/pig feed is much of the Mid-West acreage along with soybeans, much of which is for industrial uses or processed food. The city folk would be just as happy not to have ethanol in their gas tanks, especially in the winter when it can absorb water. The corn for ethanol is largely grown due to intense agricultural lobbying.

          In the summer and fall, the bulk of our vegetables and many of our fruits are grown in upstate NY or Ontario within a couple hundred miles of our house. In the winter, those come from Florida, California, Central or South America. The wheat and rye for bread comes from upper Mid-West and Canada. It is mainly the animal feed crops that get turned into meat that we end up consuming from the Mid-West in upstate NY.

          Most of the alfalfa is grown in California for export to Asia.

  7. Samuel Conner

    “… the Missouri wants to meander …”

    There’s a famous New Yorker piece on the challenges of flood control, and balancing that with other interests, on large rivers by John McPhee, “Atchafalaya”. I’m sure it has been linked at NC before, but it seems so apposite, here it is again:

    It’s a delight to read, though the subject is sobering.

    1. William Beyer

      McPhee’s article from 1987 profoundly affected me; thanks for the link! Elizabeth Kolbert has another heartbreaker on Mississippi flooding in the New Yorker this week, and she quotes McPhee. The lesson? No river is ever “controlled.”
      She also quotes Horace from 20 B.C. Drive out nature though you will with a pitchfork, yet she will always hurry back, and, before you know it, break through your perverse disdain in triumph.

  8. flora

    I’m glad you mentioned Gavins Point Dam in Yankton, S.D. It has provided hydro-electric power for the area and kept the Mighty Mo from seasonally flooding out bottom land from Yankton to Vermillion and Sioux City very well for a long time. It’s acted as a brake on unchecked floodwaters coming south from the mountains.

    Then there are unusual (I like that word – unusual – it sounds so innocuous) rainfall or weather events over the entire upper Missouri watershed that forced the Corps of Engineers to release unusually large amounts of water through the dam to keep the Lewis and Clark Lake from overtopping the dam and destroying it. (Yankton was already experiencing flooding before the controlled release, and continued to experience flooding after the release. Yankton is downstream from the dam.) A controlled released creates a, hopefully, situation of controlled flooding vs. the uncontrolled Johnston Flood, for example.) Very large water released from the dam happened due to the late winter ‘snow bomb’, which dropped massive rains and snow onto the entire Missouri upper midwest watershed basin in a short period of time, and at the same time that the winter snow melt and ice breakup was occurring. The Gavins Point Dam water release alone could have been managed downstream. But the released water was rolling down the Missouri at the same time that rivers in the upper midwest that drain into the Missouri were also overflowing from the spring melt and ‘snow bomb’ precipitation.

    The 100 year and 500 year floods seem to be happening all too frequently now. imo.

    And of course, ‘govt is bad’ so no need to spend on infrastructure upkeep and renewal. /s

    1. flora

      Adding, the corps of Engineers has two tasks: keep the water level in the Missouri high enough during drought times for barge traffic to navigate, and keep the Missouri from wreaking havoc during flood times. imo.

      1. flora

        adding, adding (and sorry to go on), there are levels of havoc. Loss of life is the worst. Lost of property, while very bad, is not the worst. My 2¢.

          1. Anon

            As explained in an earlier comment, the fields being flooded are mostly grains for animals (some for ethanol). If you want human food, try California: Central Valley, Salinas Valley, Oxnard Valley, Imperial Valley, etc.

            1. drumlin woodchuckles

              Gabe Brown ( once again . . . ) can be pointed to as showing how to grow human food for human consumption on the plains and prairies of Great Prairieana. It is not his fault that the Mainstream Farming Majority is still growing toxic petrochemical sh*tcorn and sh*tsoy for industry.

              Oh, and . . . Mark Shephard is showing how to grow human food in Wisconsin. And the prevalance of sh*tcorn and sh*tsoy in Great Prairieana is not Mark Shephard’s fault either.

              As to where human food for humans comes from or can come from, all the most funnest foods come from California. That is true. California lettuce is more fun that Michigan cabbages. California cauliflower is more fun that Michigan turnips. California avocados (wait . . . the International Free Trade Conspiracy used Mexican avocados to exterminate avocados from California) and oranges are more fun than Michigan potatoes.

              But when fun food agriculture goes extinct in California, we can still survive on not-much-fun cabbages and turnips and beets and potatoes and such from Michigan.

  9. ldruid

    A couple of points, and most assuredly not to trivialize the human pain associated with these conditions (I live in SD). How many of these inundated acres were leveled and tiled, thus concentrating water flows and contributing to floods? The mainstem dams are more than 50 years over, and are silting up behind the dams, reducing their storage capacity (Gavins Point was built in the mid-50’s, and the Missouri is a very sediment-heavy river). Is this situation not akin to that of coastal areas in the Southeast US, private inholding properties in our national forests, and so on? This is what climate change looks like; here we have an opportunity to use the land in acknowledgement of its conditions, not our dreams. The Great Plains supported a huge ecosystem, providing food and materials for the people who lived there before the Europeans arrived. Lets, akin to last week’s report on converting poachers to wildlife protectors, employ the affected in conservation, recreation, bison management, carbon sequestration.

    1. Lynne

      When it comes to tiling and leveling, I think you need to make a distinction between the Sandhills and eastern Nebraska. I still wonder how Keystone and the government thinks it will work, putting a pipeline through the middle of the Sandhills, especially given that they’ve now seen themselves what can happen. Just imagine a break or leak in the middle of this. And too, when it comes to silting, keep in mind as well that the original promise was for the Missouri River dams in SD to have navigation, which would have made quite a difference.

  10. The Rev Kev

    Kunstler’s latest post talks about this flooding as well as possible consequences if things go south-

    1. notabanker

      I’ve been concerned about the Sierras as well. 40% of agricultural GDP in California. That’s a potential tipping point imho.

  11. Carolinian

    neat theory of the case, agree or disagree

    Disagree. So by that legal theory should all those years of US taxpayer supplied dry farm land be considered a “giving”? You are basically defending the legal theory of the Western cattle ranches and others who say any limit on their “rights” to federal land is a taking. Or taxicab medallion owners. Or rich beach house owners who want a bigger sea wall.

    The actions of the Corps on the Missouri and Mississippi have in the past been considered controversial because they put up levees that eventually always seem to fail. For the latter this has caused lots of valuable silt to wind up in the Gulf of Mexico. It was flooding that made that farmland so rich. Just ask the ancient Egyptians.

    1. Carolinian

      Just to add that I’m not arguing that the farmers shouldn’t be helped, just that the takings theory is not the way to go.

      1. Lambert Strether Post author

        I thought it was an ingenious way around the obstacles placed in the way of class action. OTOH, it reinforces private property uber alles, which is surely not the way to think about biosphere systems and problems.

  12. AbateMagicThinking But Not Money

    Having been affected by flooding in minor ways I have come to believe that dykes and levees are the devil’s work. They are like empires – relatively easy to build but hard to maintain*.

    Worst of all they provide a false sense of security to the under-educated and over-invested.

    Can anybody explain why the dams are not designed to overflow?


    ps I don’t believe in the devil.

    *See the fall of Singapore.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      > like empires – relatively easy to build but hard to maintain*

      Yes, I added a link about the abandonment of Angkor Wat in the last month or so. Silting, and to much work to undo do it, plus the geopolitical center of gravity shifted away from it.

    2. rd

      The vast majority of the dams were built in the 1920s through 1970s. They were state of the art at the time, but have been allowed to deteriorate, silt in, while watersheds have generally been receiving bigger precipitation events and the land has been channelized, drained, and wetlands removed and replaced with cities. So dams that were adequate 50 years ago are no longer adequate, or even in good shape now. Levees have been added haphazardly over the decades, often with poor engineering and construction and with little planning. The current situation has been the result of spending priorities, not God’s Will. It has generally been the post Reagan and Gingrich Republicans who have slashed infrastructure spending at the local, state, and federal level to keep taxes low.

  13. meeps

    Part of the problem with blame assignment here is that it applies very broadly, owing to an almost half-century long disregard for the value of water in our lives and landscapes. Our institutions have become rigid and dogmatic and the result is that they make mistakes by rote.

    For example, here’s what falls to Mr. Remus at the Gavin Point Dam:
    “Mr. Remus’s stewardship of the river is guided by a 432-page document, the Master Manual, which lays out the eight congressionally authorized purposes he must balance. They are flood control, river navigation, hydroelectric power, irrigation, water supply, water quality, recreation (such as fishing or boating), and the preservation of endangered species.
    One problem with that: The Master Manual does not explicitly tell Mr. Remus which is more important [now; see below]. Thus the eight purposes exist in a near constant state of tension.”

    While all eight purposes can to some degree be managed at rivers/reservoirs/dams in watersheds (hydroelectric requires it), some could and should be controlled for at different points in the watershed. The top of the watershed is the sky. Water is supplied and can therefore be collected, stored, cleaned, distributed, used and discharged at points other than in rivers and streams. Installing many small scale, distributed, site-appropriate systems would reduce the pressure we place on large scale works at low points in the watershed to meet demand. These could reduce the destructiveness of failures when they do occur. They’d hydrate the land guarding against drought, reduce wildfires, provide habitat, reduce withdrawals from aquifers, etc. I’m trying to keep this brief so I’ll move on after noting the NY Times, “On the river-specked Midwestern prairie, the thousands of miles of levees are an insurance policy against nature’s whims that, at their best, keep cropland and towns dry…”. Keeping the cropland dry! Surreal.

    There is an institutionalized attitude from the Army Corps of Engineers down to the muni level that refuses to expand the range of implementable projects simply because they have been doing a certain number of things a certain way for too long. Mismanagement stems from rigid adherence to these, not from any one department or singular ruling trying to apportion water for wildlife and human benefit. The ruling admits, “…if the System does not have enough storage to impound all of the runoff, the Corps may have to choose between making higher early releases, even if that would likely wash away nesting birds and contribute to early flooding downstream…”.

    US problems are like pantomimes of Brexit, where the people in charge don’t know how to fix the problems because they can’t conceive of how to ask the right questions about them.

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      From what I have read, most mainstream farm soil in America ranges from water resistant to waterproof to water repellent. Any water that falls on it runs off laterally downslope till it reaches channels which speed its flow into bigger channels and on up into floodable streams and rivers or floodable perched floodbowls.

      If all the farmland soil in America were made water insoak wettable again, the skywater could be diffusely spread out and held in the pore spaces of a million square miles of soil . . . and not even Rush rush RUSH into the floodplains and floodbowls to begin with.

      ( This cycle of flooding may be an exception to that because after a deep freeze winter the soil would still be too frozen to insoak uptake sudden snowmelt and heavy rainfall in pre-spring. That would have to be handled and mitigated some other way. And of course a multi-decade course of skycarbon drawdown and soilcarbon buildup might de-warm the global enough to reduce the number of sudden pre-spring flash-thaws and rain-bomb water-dump events).

  14. Henry Moon Pie

    I know the Missouri pretty well. My grandparents grew up in now-destroyed Craig. I grew up in Platte County outside what had been a river town in the 1850s until the meandering Missouri decided to settle in on the Kansas side after a big flood. The remnants of the Missouri’s meanderings remain in the “bottoms” in this area in the form of several oxbow lakes, water that collects and remains in the deeply etched former river bed.

    My spouse was raised in the “bottoms” and had to leave her home several times as a child when flood waters reached the house. These floods didn’t come from the Missouri but from surface water that couldn’t escape fast enough because of the Missouri’s flood control measures.

    The power of this straightjacketed river is palpable. The current is breathtakingly swift. If you stand next to the river for a few moments, you’ll first hear then see large whirlpools open up unpredictably, then vanish. The rip rap laid to preserve the artificial banks is full of jagged concrete with spears of rebar jutting out in all directions. The Missouri is not a river you swim in. It’s not a river in which you’re likely to survive falling in.

    When it doesn’t flood, the land in the bottoms is even better for growing crops than the loess hills that surround it. It’s rich, deep, alluvial soil lying in a flat plain that’s easy for farm machinery to navigate. Yet it can destroy a farmer when it floods at the wrong time, and for most farmers, even ones now farming thousands of acres, the wrong time is just about any time because of the debt load they carry.

    The eminent domain solution is probably the best one. If you stand by the Missouri for a few moments, you realize that trying to tame this powerful river has only turned it into a monster about to burst free from its bonds. Climate change makes any attempt to make this a navigable river (and that’s what this was all about–the barges) is now impossible. Restoration of the river’s freedom to meander may be what is necessary to prevent complete disaster for downstream residents in Kansas City and beyond.

  15. Harry Shearer

    Lambert, we didn’t “write off” the Lower NInth Ward, some viable neighborhoods have returned, although one of the rebuilding projects–the ironically-named “Make It Right” program of architecturally bold housing construction spearheaded by Brad Pitt– has resulted in locally-reported failures. And naming “Katrina” as the cause of the flooding ironically fails to name the culprit found culpable by the two university-based forensic inquiries into the 2005 disaster–the very Army Corps of Engineers discussed in your piece. Perhaps read the ILIT report (from UC Berkeley) and the Team Louisiana report (from LSU) before discussing the Corps and its works again.

    1. ambrit

      Oh Good God.
      Our experience on the Mississippi Gulf Coast after Katrina was that there was a conscious decision to “gentrify” the areas rebuilt after the hurricane. So, perhaps the physical area known as the Lower Ninth Ward was not “written off,” but the people who used to live there, mainly “lower class” were exactly thus treated. How many of the poor people who were bussed to Houston were bussed back once the rebuilding commenced?
      As for the failure of the levees during the storm, well, the Corps uses local contractors to effectuate projects. New Orleans is a notoriously corrupt place. I can attest to that from my experiences in the building trades a few decades ago. Thus, many parts of the levee building process were subject to “cost cutting” and “efficiencies” during construction. Outright bribery is common. Now, if the Corps could have applied the UCMJ to those corrupt contractors and local inspectors and shot a few as an example, the problems would have been less severe.
      As to the LSU educational complex, well, all I can say is look at what happened to Van Heerden after he tried to blow the whistle on the Katrina disaster.
      NOVA on Van Heerden:

      1. Michael Fiorillo

        The aftermath of Katrina was an object lesson in Disaster Capitalism, with every public school teacher fired and the schools privatized by charters, in addition to/part of the rampant gentrification

        Arne Duncan, Obama’s (vicious behind-the-scenes) bobble head Secretary of Education, actually said it was the best thing that ever happened to the schools in New Orleans!

      2. Jeremy Grimm

        I’m curious to see what advantage Big AG makes of the flooding in the Midwest. I predict further consolidation of the remaining small to medium farms and lots of ‘interesting’ trading in the grain and soy markets. What could happen to the price of bread, gasoline and corn syrup?

        1. ambrit

          Someone above mentioned that a lot of the affected acreage is dedicated to feed grain. So, along with the ‘usual suspects,’ add beef prices to the list of ‘inflation adjusted’ prices this fall. If there is to be a resurgence of farming here soon, look to see big outlays on farm machinery. Those tinker toys can get expensive!
          A new, list price combine will set you back between $330,000 and $500,000, back in 2014!

      3. drumlin woodchuckles

        Social-class racial cleansing. I have read that an underreported racial conflict in New Orleans used to be the conflict between the dark and real-dark ADOS-Americans and the light French-culture-influenced Creoles.

        I used to wonder sometimes, when Mayor Nagin referred to New Orleans as a “chocolate” city . . . he was dogwhistling to the Creole elites and their fellow White elites that New Orleans was or would become ” chocolate” NOT “licorice” . . . ” brown” NOT “black”.

        Of course I am not from there, and anyone who is from there, and knows better, can correct me if they want to.

        1. ambrit

          There was a short lived sitcom “back in the day” called “Frank’s Place.” Well worth taking a look at today. It starred the under appreciated actor Tim Reid. It was set in New Orleans. One (in)famous episode dealt with the ‘local cultural’ practice known as the ‘Brown Bag Test.’ I don’t know if this happened in other regions of America, but it was a ‘thing’ in N’awlins.
          New Orleans had, and probably still has the Acadians, the Creoles, the Rich Whites, the Poor Whites, found in many variants, Irish, German, Italian, the Islenos from ‘down in the Parish,’ the Blacks, who also come in variants, the Choctaw and others, etc. etc. Mix this heady brew over several hundred years, shake and bake, and you get New Orleans, the most European city in North America.

    2. drumlin woodchuckles

      @Harry Shearer,

      I have read at various times that the POST-Katrina flooding event in New Orleans has been referred to a ” the Federal flood” and/or “Operation Drown NOLA”.

      There is a long-dormant but still-existing blog called Rigorous Intuition 2.0. It has various blogposts grouped under various topic titles. One such topic title is called Katrina. I think the posts are worth reading. I will offer the links here in case you might choose to read them ( or not) to see if they bear some resemblance to what you know based on living there.

      The Ballad of Finis Shelnutt
      My baby needs a shepherd
      Category 911
      Drowning by Numbers
      Series of Dreams
      The Last Refuge
      New Orleans, Year Zero
      Army Times: “Troops begin combat operations in New Orleans”
      Because they can
      Ring Them Bells
      Helter Skelter
      President Death
      Catastrophic success
      Crash on the levee

      Since the link titles turn out to be not-linkable-to as printed, I will offer a linkable link to just one of the posts. From there you can find the whole bunch of Katrina posts if you wish to so choose.

  16. PlutoniumKun

    I know a municipal engineer who got in big trouble one time after a flood when he said in a radio interview ‘If you buy a house called ‘Riverview’, you have to expect to get your feet wet occasionally’. He was of course right, but that didn’t make what he said popular. Ultimately, far too many buildings are built in floodplains. It wasn’t always this way – I remember seeing photographs of a big flood on the Severn in England and what was striking was that the old medieval villages (visible as they were clustered around churches) stayed dry while the surrounding suburbs were under water. They weren’t stupid back then, they knew it was easier and cheaper to stay high.

    A big issue that’s often forgotten is that flooding is not simply a matter of managing watercourses – natural river courses often hold far more water than engineered ones, and vegetated land holds water far better than open exposed crops. Overall land management over an entire catchment matters.

    1. The Rev Kev

      Another issue is that some local Councils that have possession of flood maps treat them as top security documents never to be viewed by the public. To do so would show those very same Councils allowing development on what are historical flood plains.

      1. WobblyTelomeres

        Towns are run by realtors and developers. They can be damn annoying when you try to reason with them. We got a new minor league ball park and team when a local developer had trouble finding enough anchor stores. The mayor and city council were strangely silent after several secret meetings (against state law, btw) to approve the bond measure.

        In their defense, SimCity gives bonus points for cities that have ball clubs. /s

        1. Pespi

          The history of government in the US is the history of county government, up until the new deal or so. So much happens unreported and unacknowledged until the bulldozers are cruising around.

      2. rd

        The wonderful thing about the Internet is how once sacred scrolls are now publicly available. Anybody who lives in a FEMA mapped area can pull up a detailed flood map of their community:

        However, what FEMA has found is that as soon as they update their maps, the bleating starts about how places are now mapped in a flood zone so people have to buy unaffordable (but subsidized) flood insurance now. The FEMA flood program got a very good upgrade by Congress @ 2012 but that was largely rolled back within 2 years because of the screams of pain.

  17. ambrit

    What about the long term effects on crop yields in the Midwest?
    Isn’t this area called America’s Breadbasket? More interestingly, what will Agribusiness do when crop yields become less predictable? Plan ahead for sustainable farming, or asset strip the soil in support of quarterly income statements?
    The “small” farmers will suffer and go bankrupt, but the big concerns? My money is on them raising prices on everything to compensate for their losses. Food prices at the retail level will go up over this. Anything that uses grains in it’s production goes up in price soon.

    1. juliania

      Or perhaps the big concerns will go bankrupt and smaller farms with different coping strategies will be the winners. One can hope!

      Thanks, Lambert. Members of my family drove through some of this on spring break, right after the bomb cyclone. There will be more such events.

      “It does seem to me that the Missouri “wants to” meander, and as climate change continues and intensifies, will more and more get what it wants.”

      Well said.

      1. Jeremy Grimm

        It’s nice to hope. I suspect the big AG players have giant farms in several areas, perhaps several countries. They also have the capacity to make large plays on the commodities markets. I think the disasters in the Midwest will have an effect on the big grain cartels not greatly unlike the impacts of Nixon’s Russian Wheat deal. I believe the flooding will wipe out most of the remaining small and many of the remaining medium size farms. It’s impacts on Big AG will depend on how each player has distributed their interests — so I expect some adjustments in their relative strengths.

          1. Knute Rife

            Happens every time there’s an “international event.” Happened 40 years ago with the Soviet grain embargo, it’s happened since, and it will happen this time. Small farmers can’t weather the international trade disputes, end up throwing it in, with Agribusiness snapping it all up for a song. Guess why there are no small farmers in any country where the ag sector focuses on exports.

  18. notabanker

    This is a great post Lambert, thanks.

    There is a documentary called Solartown USA that details a Wisconsin town that moved it’s town center to higher ground. The first 1/3 of it covers the in fighting by township leaders and arguments with Army Corps. The Corps is designed to control rivers, not move towns and they were against the idea. It took a catastrophic flood in the late 70’s to push everyone over the line. They rebuilt the town during the Carter energy crisis and outfitted the new buildings with passive solar. As ownership transferred over the decades many of the original systems fell into disrepair. Much to be learned from this story, imho.

    1. Phacops

      Know Soldier’s Grove and Gays Mills well while canoeing the Kickapoo River. Flooding in those two towns, especially in the fall, was constant. An artifact of the topography of the driftless area as one nears the Wisconsin River. Soils sit atop sandstone and the Kickapoo is constrained by sandstone bluffs as it meanders across its floodplain. Runoff from the heights of the driftless area is rapidly channeled down the valleys to the Wisconsin. A beautiful area, though and at Wyalusing where the Wisconsin empties into the Mississippi one can gape at the valley of the Mississippi half filled with glacial sediment.

      The topography of the driftless area poses challenges to many communities even during rainstorms. Once while bicyclyng out of Plains Wisconsin we needed to descend into Richland Center fron a high ridge during a thunderstorm. There we encountered 3 to 5 inches of water in the streets that I gather is not uncommom.

    2. drumlin woodchuckles

      If those buildings were designed to be uniquely passive-solar-friendly and adapted, then perhaps those friendliness adaptation underlying shape-features of the buildings are still there; ready to make passive solar systems useful again if those systems are ever restored.

  19. rjs

    those western rivers are supposed to flood…that’s how the Ogallala aquifer gets recharged

    1. Jeremy Grimm

      Please explain further. Is there some sinkhole that only feeds the Ogallala aquifer when Western rivers flood?

      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        While awaiting rjs’s explaination, we can perhaps suppose that if water can insoak downsoak diffusely over a quarter million sqare miles, that no one sinkhole is necessary.

  20. Phacops

    My take is that any idea of flood control is ultimately useless. Plus, building levees is a begger your neighbor strategy where competing ommunities are locked into a red-queen gambit of running just to stay in place. Levees only mean that at times of high water flooding is merely displaced to less protected areas. There should be a recognition that living on floodplains, including those “fossil” floodplains of sediment deposited beyond a river’s natural levees, is at risk and the people there assume all responsibility.

    Plus, what we see from flood control and channelization on the lower Mississippi is an ongoing and vast environmental degradation as sediment, which would replenish a compacting delta, is dumped into deep water. Should we have a Houston-like event at Point Breeze during a time of high water we could lose the Old River Control Structure as nearly happened in 1973. With the Atchalafaya basin tens of feet lower than the Mississippi in that area, the Mississippi reclaiming that ancient channel is a geologic certainty.

    The best flood control is moving people off of the flood plains.

  21. Marc Andelman

    Maybe Trump and Melania will go there and hand out paper towels.

    Not incidentally, the scariest system of dikes is holding back the ocean from Califronia’s central valley, Much of the best farmland in the US is below sea level, protected by earth dikes built in a hodge-podge by farmers. Levies, as everyone knows, only takes one weak link to bring the system down. With rising sea levels, dikes will have to be raised. This is not just about height, but also width, so it becomes exponentially more expensive. AND, if that fails, it will also take out the water supply to San Francisco.

    1. Anon

      Actually, the water supply to San Francisco (the City) comes from the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir that is up in the Sierra Nevada mountains. The Hetch Hetchy valley, adjacent to Yosemite valley, was damned in the 1930’s.

      1. Bernalkid

        The east bay system crosses the delta and is vulnerable. Serves some millions I believe.

  22. Knute Rife

    I’ve canoed this stretch of the Niobrara and remember its “before” pictures. These dams have had issues for years, but I’ve seen plenty that are worse off. Another part of our crapified infrastructure no one is talking about.

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