In recent years, major floods have become a nearly annual scourge around the U.S. and in the St. Louis region, where the Mississippi River has soared to four of its nine highest recorded levels within the past decade — in 2013, 2016, 2017 and 2019.
So far, this year’s flood-risk outlook appears safer for main regional waterways, but experts warn that any major episode in 2020 could pose a far greater threat, if layered on top of an ongoing pandemic.
“That would be just a terrible combination of events,” said David Stokes, head of the Great Rivers Habitat Alliance, a nonprofit group focused on river management issues. “It would be a really difficult thing to manage this year if it happened, and I pray that it doesn’t.”
”We’re just watching every forecast with bated breath here, to see where those crests will go,” added Colin Wellenkamp, executive director of the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative, a group that advocates for river communities throughout the basin.
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Even with the attention and resources demanded by the coronavirus, at least some contingency planning is underway for the nightmare scenario that could occur if a major — or even moderate — flood were thrown into the equation.
There’s a long list of ways the pandemic would compound problems if combined with a flood. Among them:
• Flood-fighting tasks such as filling and passing sandbags are largely incompatible with social distancing.
• Evacuations could multiply risks of contagion as people move elsewhere, including to the households of friends or relatives.
• Emergency responders are already stressed and would be starting from behind.
• Federal, state and local budgets are in the red as the economy has tanked.
Funding is perhaps the most important of all. “You can have all the plans you want, but you need the money to implement them,” said Wellenkamp.
“The short answer,” said Samantha Montano, about the pandemic, “is that it affects everything about a flood response.” Montano is professor of emergency management and disaster science at the University of Nebraska, Omaha.
Flood preparedness in 2020, Wellenkamp says, goes hand-in-hand with pandemic preparedness. If communities throughout the Mississippi River Basin are to combat flooding or other natural disasters, they will need elevated stockpiles of personal protective equipment, or PPE, to outfit responders. Ideally, they would also have ample testing capacity for the virus, to assess the risk of transmitting the disease if people are displaced from their homes and need to go elsewhere.
Satisfying those wish lists would be difficult, with medical supply chains strained nationwide. Getting supplies and building up emergency reserves is made even harder for the many communities still trying to rebound after last year’s marathon flood fights.
”The county’s still dealing with last year’s” flooding aftermath, said Chris Gamm, the presiding commissioner in Pike County, situated along the Mississippi River more than an hour’s drive north of St. Louis. “We’re still trying to get money.”
Pike County is by no means alone. With federal disaster reimbursement yet to be processed for many areas affected by widespread flooding in 2019, plenty of local governments entered this year with a fiscal crunch already on their hands. On top of that, they now face the economic free fall sparked by the coronavirus.
“We have a cash-strapped corridor. Especially in the St. Louis area,” said Wellenkamp. “If you need the cash now to purchase a bunch of PPE (personal protective equipment), you may not have it.”
Experts said the pandemic also threatens to scramble other financial aspects of disaster response and recovery — changing the dynamic of how money flows to local governments from the federal level, and potentially slowing the paperwork process to apply for grants, conduct damage assessment, and make official disaster declarations.
Still, communities are doing what they can to put some emergency preparations in place. For example, some cities on the Mississippi River have signed contracts with hotels to accommodate evacuees from floods or other disasters, if needed.
Regional FEMA officials say that, despite the pandemic, the agency is prepared to meet the needs of multilayered disasters.
”It strains the system, certainly,” said Paul Taylor, regional administrator for FEMA Region VII based in Kansas City. “Even with coronavirus going on, if we had to get out in the field and handle a flood, we would still be able to do that.”
He said the agency would find ways to work through challenges, like accounting for social distancing during face-to-face interactions with disaster victims in need of assistance. And he noted that FEMA has recent experience addressing multiple high-impact disasters, from a series of major hurricanes in 2017 to last year’s widespread flooding.
Region is vulnerable
Although no major regional flooding is foreseen in short-term forecasts that are available, many warn that the area’s risk is still considerable — meaning it will likely be a nerve-wracking spring and summer for emergency management agencies addressing coronavirus issues while also looking over their shoulder at river levels.
As recent history shows, the St. Louis area is vulnerable, sitting at the confluence of two increasingly temperamental rivers. That was reinforced just last week, when the dual threat of climate change and poor flood management policies along the upper Mississippi River and the lower Missouri River earned the waterways the top two rankings on an annual list of the nation’s Most Endangered Rivers.
“Right now, when there is a flood, it’s ‘everyone for themselves,’ which adds a layer of chaos to an already chaotic disaster,” said Olivia Dorothy, who tracks Mississippi River management issues for American Rivers, the organization that produced the list. “While some cities and states are planning better than others, there still isn’t any semblance of the necessary basin-scale water management plan required to solve the problem. And the COVID-19 pandemic is shining a grim light on the vulnerability of our largely volunteer-based flood response system.”
The rankings echo warnings of many flood policy critics in the region who have heaped scrutiny on river management practices in recent years, and argue that an overuse of levees and floodplain development constrict rivers and push water higher.
“It’s not actually that complicated. You’ve over-constricted both of these rivers, you’ve taken away too much of the floodplain,” said Stokes. “Climate change is just exacerbating the impacts right now, as you get more rain than you used to and there’s less space for the water to go.”
Regardless of what happens with this year’s water levels, some are cautiously optimistic that repercussions from the coronavirus could serve as a long-awaited catalyst for change.
Wellenkamp, for instance, notes that plans to revive the economy could include massive spending and public works bills like those that helped the nation emerge from the Great Depression. He sees it as “a tremendous opportunity” to overhaul river infrastructure and invest in resilience — something that could find traction with a growing share of the public.
“It’s probably the best opportunity we’ve had in a long time — probably the last half century,” he said. “There is more public support for solutions that are not the same old, same old. … People can see that the old solutions aren’t working anymore.”