Hurricane Katrina's devastation of the Gulf Coast last week offered a terrifying reminder of the impact of floods on human history. Almost every culture seems to harbor its flood myth. According to Greek folklore, early humans were punished for their wickedness by a vengeful god, who stirred up a torrential storm and commanded the oceans to rise, drowning every living thing. In Welsh mythology, the lake of Llion overflows, swamping everything save the Celtic heroes Dwyfan and Dwyfach who escape the waters in a mastless ship packed with two of every species. (Sound familiar?) And in Kenya, legend holds that the ocean once fit in a small pot owned by a poor couple. The husband warned his daughter-in-law never to touch it, explaining that it held the remains of their honored ancestors. She couldn't resist, the pot shattered, and -- you guessed it -- a flood drowned every living thing.
This is the general pattern: Heedless humans bringing on not only their own demise, but the demise of everything around them. Not all flood myths adhere to this formula, though. Take the Confucian version. The story begins in the usual manner, with the king asking his faithful minister, Gun, to save the country from rising waters. Unfortunately, Gun is an arrogant guy and thinks he can control nature. For nine years he labors, building dam after dam to stem the raging tide. As each dam falls apart, the waters rage ever stronger. Eventually, the king wises up, banishes Gun, and orders Gun's son, Yu, to have a go. A humble man, Yu quietly studies the problem and concludes that attempting to constrain nature is futile. Rather than build dams, he gently channels the flood waters into an irrigation system. The crops bloom, the waters recede, the people are saved and Yu is anointed king.
Americans seem not to know Yu's story, for we insist on defying nature. We blithely set sail on churning seas and fly into stormy skies. We build homes on unstable hillsides, and communities in woodlands ripe for fire. We rely on technology and the government's largess to protect us from our missteps, and usually, that is enough. But sometimes nature outwits the best human efforts to contain it. Last week's hurricane was a horrifying case in point. The resulting flooding offered brutal evidence that the efforts we have made over the years to contain nature -- with channels and levees and other great feats of engineering -- can contribute to greater catastrophes.
Hurricanes of all sorts are a regular feature of coastal life, yet you would never know that from the nightly news. Early reports from New Orleans included descriptions of the Superdome's roof being ripped away, and a torrent of unleashed waters that covered 80 percent of the city, forcing the helpless residents to their rooftops and other refuges. All of this is awful, but none of it should come as a surprise. Nothing can stop a hurricane, of course, but humans can do much to worsen the impact of one. And humans have done plenty to set the course for this disaster.
Floods are part of the natural ebb and flow of life in lowland Louisiana, and, left to their own devices, flood waters can actually do good. They carry silt from the Mississippi River that replenishes the delta and keeps the coastland above the water line, creating a gradual buffer from the sea. But we have short-circuited this natural process by constructing hundreds of miles of levees along the river and channeling the rushing water into the Gulf of Mexico, where essential sediment is dumped. As a result, the lowlands are sinking into the Gulf at a rate of 25 square miles each year. And as illustrated so disastrously last week, levees are not indestructible. Indeed, the higher and more strongly built they are, the greater the dangers when they are breached.
Until now, Mother Nature, even at her angriest, has not managed to dislodge our abiding belief that technology will protect us from our clumsiest acts of hubris. But Katrina made it impossible to ignore the power of prevention, to ignore the facts that our often ham-fisted efforts to keep New Orleans dry have led to the erosion of the region's natural defenses. Indeed, Katrina has sent us a sweeping message about learning to live with, instead of combating, nature: We might work harder to reduce our emission of the greenhouse gases contributing to climate change and dramatic weather events -- like hurricanes -- rather than investing so much of our effort in finding ways to protect ourselves from ever more powerful storms. We might decrease our use of the fossil fuels that create those gases by driving more efficient cars and developing alternatives, rather than attempting to draw still more oil and natural gas from the reluctant earth. And, in the same spirit, we might spend more precious health care dollars on prevention -- health education, nutrition and other public health measures -- rather than squandering so many of them on high-tech medical wizardry that too often creates a host of new problems.
None of this, of course, is easy. Part of our national optimism stems from the fantasy that brute technological force can triumph over almost anything -- from deadly microbes to earthquakes that reach up the Richter scale. This explains why so many expensive homes come to be built on fault lines or in fire-prone forests. The belief that we have the power to control nature at her fiercest has deluded us into thinking we can win the fights we deliberately pick with her.
In the case of flooding, we almost learned to stop picking those fights. The Midwestern flood of 1993 broke flow records along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, causing an estimated $12 billion to $16 billion in damages. The havoc wrought by this disaster sparked a new emphasis on flood-damage prevention, including widely publicized government buyouts of flood plain properties. But these buyouts were soon eclipsed by new construction on flood plains, many of them centered in the St. Louis metropolitan region, with an estimated $2.2 billion spent on new development on the very land that had sunk below the waterline in 1993.
A study done at the University of Colorado at Boulder a few years ago found that in a presidential election year, there are twice as many federally declared disasters than in other years. Americans love heroes, and there is nothing more appealing to politicians, including presidents, than comforting victims of national disasters with promises of resources and money. But these dollars are rarely earmarked for mitigation measures, such as bolstering coastal flood plains and wetlands around New Orleans to provide some degree of natural defense. Nor do these efforts often lead to a spurt of regulations to help prevent the damage from occurring again. This is not due to a lack of understanding -- government officials know full well that humans were not meant to build on flood plains. They also know that overdevelopment creates huge swaths of impermeable surfaces like roads and parking lots, giving water no place to go, and making even moderate flooding more dangerous. But when faced with a developer who might contribute to the community's tax base, these same officials rarely have the strength to insist on sensible measures. Like Gun, they cling to the dangerous canard that nature can be tamed.
There is a more reasonable path. The Dutch, after a long, romantic history of battling back the sea, have in the past few years come to a sort of truce with a force they now acknowledge they cannot control. This is not to suggest that the Dutch are suddenly yanking their fingers out of the nation's massive dike system, but they are, as they put it, "making room for water," banning new building on flood plains and preserving essential wetlands. The British, too, are adopting this holistic approach, replacing expensive and unsustainable "high walls" engineered to keep everything dry, with green space placed between houses and the river, and tiered flood defense systems that encourage the water to rise predictably, in steps. The goal is not to keep every drop of water behind a barrier, but to work with the flow, softening it from a seething torrent to manageable rivulets.
Katrina will not be the last hurricane to hit the Gulf Coast, and it probably won't be the most powerful one. But by the time the next storm crashes down the delta, let's hope we will have learned to take Yu's approach and play by nature's rules.
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Ellen Ruppel Shell, a correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly, is co-director of the Graduate Program in Science Journalism at Boston University.