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Nature Always Wins

Are people fighting a losing battle against the elements?

For the time being, Erin Niebruegge goes to school at the Waterloo, Illinois, fairgrounds. Her classroom is in a trailer and, she said, the hallways "are so crowded, you can't move."

It is not that Erin's school district is so poor that it cannot afford to build a school. Rather, Erin's school was ruined when it was flooded under more than 10 feet of water in the summer of 1993. That was when the mighty Mississippi River flooded its banks in what the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers called a "500-year flood." In other words, it was the kind of huge flood that happens only about once every 500 years.

That flood caused massive damage. The floodwaters killed 50 people and forced 62,000 families to flee their homes. It also left 55 towns destroyed, totaling $12 billion in damage.

Repairs to the damage caused by that natural disaster will soon be completed. Now many farmers, businesses, and residents are moving back onto land that was under water only a year ago.

But some environmentalists and scientists warn that by moving back, people are repeating mistakes of the past. They say that people who live near the Mississippi and other rivers need to learn an important lesson: Nature cannot be easily tamed.

Trying to Tame Nature

People have been trying to tame nature since the beginning of human life on earth. Sometimes it is by building structures to change the course of a river. Near the ocean, it may be by constructing seawalls to keep waves from washing away beaches and homes. The basic purpose of all these efforts is the same: to allow people to live wherever they want.

One of the biggest attempts to control nature can be seen on the Mississippi River. Levees stretch a total of 3,566 miles along the river's 2,000-mile length.

A levee is a wall of dirt piled up along a river to prevent flooding. Dozens of dams also are used to control the rate at which water flows down the river. It has been estimated that since 1927, spending on efforts to control flooding of the Mississippi River totals $8 billion.

People also have tried to control the effects of nature in coastal areas. To prevent erosion (wearing away) of beaches and shorelines, groins and jetties are constructed. Made of wood, concrete, or steel, such structures stretch out from the shore and are designed to prevent sand from washing away. Another method of preventing beach erosion is to dump hundreds of tons of sand offshore. This makes the water shallower, helping to prevent large waves from forming that could further erode beaches.

All for Nothing

As was seen in 1993 and many times before, human efforts to control nature often fail. Despite the dams and thousands of miles of levees, the flooded Mississippi destroyed farms, homes, and communities up and down its length.

"We really didn't have much warning," says Erin Niebruegge, whose home is less than one mile from the banks of the river. "We knew it had rained a lot, but we had no idea it would break the levee."

Erin says that her home near Valmeyer, Illinois, was flooded by about six feet of water. "Fortunately, we were able to get a lot of things out before the floodwaters hit," she told JS. Many of Erin's friends and thousands of other families were not so lucky.

Some homes in Valmeyer were washed away. Others were so damaged that they cannot be lived in again. "At one of my friend's homes, the water current was so strong it ripped off all of the siding," says Erin. "You could see right through the whole house."

Moving Back

Despite the danger of this happening again, the levees are being repaired. Thousands of families, like Erin's, are moving right back onto the land from which they were forced to flee. Why would people move back to a place that again may be flooded?

"We don't want to leave our farm," Erin says. "My parents figure it's worth the risk of going back because the farming is so good."

The reason the farming is so good in the first place is because of flooding. The land along the banks of the river is called a floodplain. It is called this because each time the river rises, these areas become flooded. When a river floods such areas, it deposits tons of silt (fine soil) and dirt. When the water recedes (flows away), it leaves behind rich farmland upon which farmers can easily grow crops. Along Egypt's Nile River, for example, farmers have relied on the rich soil of the floodplains for centuries.

Unfortunately, in the case of the Mississippi and other major U.S. rivers, cities and towns have grown up along the river banks and on the flood plains. As the world saw last year, the danger of building in such places is all too real.

Building homes and businesses along seashores is just as risky. Many seaside communities have built jetties and dumped sand offshore for protection. Too often, it doesn't work. Communities along the Atlantic coast have suffered billions of dollars worth of damage in the last few years. The risk to shoreline communities has become so severe that in some cases insurance companies will not sell insurance to coastal homeowners.

In the Netherlands, where coastal flooding has been a problem for centuries, a new device was installed offshore several years ago. This device, called a flood barrier, is a huge gate that can be dropped to prevent destructive waves from reaching shore. A similar device was installed at the mouth of the Thames, a river in England. Such flood barriers might help prevent erosion along U.S. coasts as well.

Deciding to Move

Some communities and countries are getting the message that nature cannot be easily controlled.

For example, Erin's hometown of Valmeyer no longer exists. It was so devastated by the floods that the entire town voted to move. The new Valmeyer will be located about a mile from its previous site. But more important, it will be located atop a bluff (high bank or cliff) that will be far from the reach of even the highest flood waters.

Environmentalists say that one benefit of people moving away from the river's edge is that nature will reclaim these areas. By allowing the river's boundaries to once again become marshland and home to a wide variety of plants and animals, a natural levee will form. These areas will serve as buffers and absorbers that can slow down flood waters in the future.

Back in Valmeyer, however, Erin hopes that life will return to normal as soon as possible. The new school will open by 1996, she says. This time, it will be located far from the reach of floodwaters.

"I think everyone is adapting pretty well," says Erin. "We all know this could happen again this year. But we can get through it. We have before."

 

 

November 4, 1994

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