US Air Force/Wikimedia Commons

Lessons from the Great Flood of 1993.

You may not remember the Great Flood of 1993, in which the Missouri and Mississippi rivers and their tributaries overran their banks. In a series of inundations that lasted for months, the floods covered 30,000 square miles across nine states, causing $15 billion in property damage, killing more than 30 people, destroying entire towns and millions of acres of crops.

You may not remember it, but James Lee Witt, then head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, recalls it well.

“President Clinton and Missouri Governor Carnahan and we got together, and I said, we have got to do something different,” said Witt at a panel on disaster preparedness at The Atlantic’s CityLab summit. “We can’t let these people go back in the hundred-year flood plain and build again.”

At the time, Witt proposed that the government use money from FEMA, Housing and Urban Development, and community block development grants to mitigate the inevitable next flooding disaster by moving people and property out of the flood zone. Governors in all nine states affected by the floods, worse even than the legendary Mississippi flood of 1927, agreed to the plan.

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“We bought 4,000 pieces of property in Missouri alone and relocated those people,” Witt said. “Then we put deed restrictions on it and gave it back to the city and county as open green space. In Iowa, the governor took all that property and worked with the game and fish [department] to put jogging trails around the river and plant it back in its native grass, so it brought back the ecosystem. Well, in 1995, it flooded again, and guess what? Not one dollar was spent on recovery.”

A subsequent cost-benefit analysis showed the magnitude of the return on the investment made in disaster mitigation. “Every dollar we spent saved five dollars in future losses,” said Witt. “And it saved lives. That’s a big deal.”

And that, according to Caswell Holloway, deputy mayor for operations for the city of New York, is a lesson that needs to be recalled by the people who are charged with preparing cities both for the ongoing effects of climate change and for one-time disasters of the future – storms, droughts, floods, heat waves, terror attacks.

“Start with Secretary Witt’s observation that every dollar spent on mitigation is five dollars saved,” he said. “Mayors and local leaders need to really absorb what that means. What that means is you have to find resources right now to invest in analysis and prevention.” Politics, said Holloway, can’t get in the way of the duty municipal leaders have to protect their citizens.

Former FEMA secretary Witt agreed. “As much money as we spend on disasters in this country,” he said,  “Our future in disaster preparedness is mitigation and prevention. It’s got to happen.”

Top image: A Catholic church in the middle of flood waters at Kaskaskia, Illinois, during the Great Flood of 1993. (US Air Force/Wikimedia Commons)

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