Government Flood "Help" Just Hurts

April 7, 2014

Every month or so, TV screens are filled with images of desperate people somewhere battling a flood. Floods have been reshaping the earth for billions of years. Some past floods were far larger than modern floods, as evidenced by the width of many flood plains that are seldom completely flooded today.

The majority of cities and many country homes were built on flood plains, and for good reason. They were closer to water, had fertile soil, better groundwater, were on flat country that was easier to build on, were near good fishing holes and shady trees, and were periodically refertilized with silty topsoil. Sensibly, many early settlers built their homes on stilts.

We hear alarmist stories about the soaring costs of floods. That is not usually because the floods are bigger, it is just that more people are building more costly homes and infrastructure on flood plains near the mouths of scenic rivers.

Those who choose to build and live on flood plains must accept the costs that go with it: occasional flooding and expensive flood insurance. However, a nice home on flood-prone land will usually cost less than a similar home on the hill with views.

Long-term flood problems are increased when government steps in and “helps” those who buy and build on flood-prone land with repair subsidies, public works or insurance caps. This allows risk-takers to escape the real cost of their decisions. Then more people build on flood plains.

Flood diversions and levees may not help. Too often, they just shift floodwater from one piece of land to another. Commonly, they also increase water speed, thus increasing the erosive power of the flood.

Nevertheless, governments must ensure that essential infrastructure is relatively flood-proof. This includes roads, railways, airports and electricity, all of which should remain operational during most floods. Strategically placed dams will moderate the extremes of both floods and droughts.

Global warming can’t be blamed for more floods because for the past 17 years, there has been no global warming.

Flood plains are for floods. Those who choose to live there must expect to get flooded.

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