Giving Rivers More Room: Who Wants to Give Up The Freedom to Flood?
A CBS 60-Minutes segment last Sunday brought into focus many thoughts I have been struggling to articulate since Hurricane Harvey. The segment featured an interview with a Dutch flood expert named Henk Ovink. Mr. Ovink has some impressive credentials and consults with other countries and cities around the world. At a strategic level, he looks at America and scratches his strikingly bald head. You can sum up his observations in a paragraph.
Simple Flooding Solution: Reimagine, Don’t Replace
America, he says, spends hundreds of billions of dollars to repair flood damage and restore communities to the way they were. The Dutch, he says, focus on re-imagining their cities to move structures and people out of harm’s way. The idea is to give floods more room to spread out rather than to confine them within dikes. Instead of incentivizing people with below-cost national flood insurance to build ever closer to danger areas, reward them for moving to safer places.
Unfortunately, the 60-minutes segment is behind a pay wall. If you’re not a subscriber already, you can see many of the same thoughts in this 10-minute interview he did with the Canadian Broadcasting Company right after Hurricane Harvey and other massive floods in 2017.
Why Change is So Difficult
It’s not as if these are new ideas. We hear people talking about them ad nauseam – at conferences, on TV, in City Council chambers, in newspaper reports. Yet we never take action on them. As a result, homes and businesses flood repetitively. And people die. In contrast, no one has died in a Dutch flood since 1955, says Mr. Ovink.
This raises an obvious question.
What keeps us from adopting simple, low-cost, proven solutions?
The answer should be blindingly obvious, but isn’t … at least to Americans … and especially Texans, who believe in individual freedom and competition more than most.
If you take the time to watch Mr. Ovink’s other speeches and interviews on YouTube, you’ll get a hint. He talks a lot about the spirit of cooperation among the Dutch people. It’s not as if American’s don’t know how to cooperate. It’s that we don’t LIKE to cooperate – if there’s money to be made.
Cooperation Vs. Competition
From a sociological and psychological perspective, humans have two great survival strategies: cooperation and competition. You can see them built into our political fabric at every level, dating back to the U.S. Constitution. We built America on both. Fifty states work together to provide for things like a common defense. But we also have fifty states competing with each other for jobs, economic development, and the freedom to pursue different values.
The contradiction and tension between these two survival strategies defines the American mindset and American politics. Two local, recent examples:
- Romerica is trying to build a 3.2 million square foot development in wetlands near the floodway of the San Jacinto West Fork. They know it’s not safe, but they can make money by buying up cheap flood plain land and then sell river views at a profit. Taxpayer-subsided flood insurance protects everyone. So why not?
- In Montgomery County, a private water utility is fighting what it calls a “government monopoly” on the supply of water. QuadVest and Simon Sequeira want unlimited groundwater pumping to pump up their profits. They dispute the science that points to the subsidence it will generate, endangering other people’s property.
Lessons from the Pursuit of Loneliness
As I reflected on this, it reminded me of a book I read in 1970, The Pursuit of Loneliness by Phillip Slater. For a sociology book, it became a blockbuster success. It sold more than half a million copies, a monster number at the time.
The New York Times said in a review, “…the book explored the tension between the Lone Ranger individualist who occupies center stage in American myth and the communal interdependence that defines democracy in reality.”
The example I remember best from Slater’s book, which I read almost 50 years ago, concerned migration to suburbs and exurbs. For thousands of years, Slater said, to be civilized meant to be citified. We love all the benefits of living in a city (like jobs, shopping, cultural and sporting events), but our dream is a ranch far out in the country that lets us escape. So we buy it, then lobby to build an eight-lane divided highway to it. Use up two to three hours a day commuting. And pollute the air along the way. We wake up years later only to find that we have destroyed the very lifestyle we we fought so hard to attain.
The book is filled with contradictions like this. For instance, when connectedness brings us happiness, why do we work so hard to live in walled-off homes? I highly recommend it.
Group Vs. Individual
This conflict between cooperation and competition, independence and interdependence, defines the contradictions in our ambitions, politics and lifestyles. It’s what makes America and Texas so insanely great. It’s also one of the things that makes flood mitigation so difficult and expensive. Our belief in individual rights blinds us to the obvious. Maybe we should just give the river room to flood by turning that flood plain property into communal parks that everyone can enjoy. But who will give up their river view? Or the freedom to flood?
Posted by Bob Rehak on 7/25/2019
695 Days since Hurricane Harvey
All thoughts expressed in this post are my opinions on matters of public policy. They are protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution and the Anti-SLAPP law of the great State of Texas.