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The proper goal of federal flood policy

Updated: Jun 6, 2020

Proctor Lake, Texas, constructed by the Corps of Engineers for flood risk management, drinking water, and recreation

In 2005, after the terrible devastation of Hurricane Katrina, while I was commanding the Army Corps of Engineers’ emergency operations, I was told that some of our people heard from New Orleans citizens, “You told us we were protected.”  That report gave me pause to ask, Can the Federal government really “protect” citizens from floods, especially in areas as vulnerable to storms and flooding as New Orleans?

I thought about that incident last week, while addressing a large group of current retired members from the Water Resources Division of the US Geological Survey (USGS).  USGS collects information needed to analyze and understand the Nation’s water resources, including the likelihood and locations of future flooding problems.

The discussion focused on how the U.S. formed its national approach to flood policy.  While some pundits sling irresponsible comments about federal employees, it was heartening to be among some of the many dedicated and talented former public servants.  Their questions were especially incisive because they understood the potential impact that weak flood management policy has on public safety and the Federal budget.

The link between effective flood planning and the Federal budget is clear.  In many cases, the Federal government funds flood infrastructure (although funding for this is almost always problematic) and helps with affordable flood insurance.

Additionally, state governments establish building codes in areas at risk of flooding.  Local governments develop zoning restrictions that impact what can be built in flood-prone areas and can provide for evacuation.

But even given all these actions from government at all levels, the question remains, Can the government protect citizens from floods?  After Katrina, there was significant discussion of this on the Interagency Flood Risk Management Committee (IFRMC).  Our conclusion was that governments should be in the business of assuring the safety of their citizens by helping reduce the risk of floods, not promising to protect them from all flood damages.  Notwithstanding the substantial infrastructure along the nationally significant Lower Mississippi River Valley (that proved to work most successfully during the great flood of 2011 in which more water than ever flowed down the Mississippi), full “protection” is an unrealistic standard.

The best solution is through concerted and coordinated action by governments, affected businesses and residents.  This can markedly reduce the risk of flooding, greatly decrease potential flood damages, and assure no loss of life.  The IFRMC developed this simple schematic to help us describe the policy:

Up to a certain point, government action can control floodwaters.  But fully securing the safety of the public can only happen if everyone involved in managing floods, especially the individuals who live and work in the flood plains, contribute to reducing risk. 

Governments can only do so much; and it must be a shared responsibility.

The entire intent of this national approach is to protect life and reduce damages due to flooding, both presently and in the future.  With all floodplain stakeholders informed and decisively engaged they can contribute in a synergistic fashion to reducing their risk, limiting property loss, and ensuring their personal safety.

Maj. Gen. (Ret) Don Riley Senior Vice President

Gen. Riley is a former Deputy Commanding General of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.


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