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Such is the story of the breadbasket of America. In 1973, the low-lying areas around the Mississippi River and all the surrounding tributaries that empty into the mighty Mississippi were deluged with prolonged rains. The rivers swelled to historic heights, and after a month of steady pressure on the levee walls, the earthen dams either blew out or were overwhelmed. The Great Midwestern Flood of 1973 consumed thousands of acres of land and caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage.
Lessons about river systems and extremely wet springs should have been learned from that flood, but in theory, time was supposed to be on the side of the residents and farmers who live their lives and ply their trades on the river bottoms . In 1993, though, a 500-year flood happened again in the same region of America. The flood was deemed an act of God, and entire communities were forced to rebuild from the ground up after the waters receded. There was one exception to the act of God, however: The flooding of West Quincy, Missouri, was deemed to be an act of sabotage. Despite the fact that more than 500 levees failed along rivers that feed into the Mississippi, West Quincy was an anomaly. That levee would have held were it not for James Scott, a local bad boy who is now serving life in prison for causing its break. But that’s another story for another time.
Fifteen years later, a 500-year flood happened again in the same area as the other two floods -- and all occurred within a 35-year time frame. Then in March of this year, yet another 500-year flood happened in parts of North Dakota and Minnesota. So why are these floods of biblical proportions happening so frequently?
According to R. David Hammer, PhD, a renowned soil and atmospheric scientist, a couple of factors come into play. Over time, we’ve seemingly been having more intense storms more frequently. Some scientists and meteorologists chalk this up to climate change. The situation is exacerbated by the fact that the entire native American landscape has been altered. There are almost no natural vegetative buffers along river systems like there were in the past. When you have thunderstorms on and off for months, the water is not getting into the ground like it used to. As a result, all of us will see more 500-year floods in our lifetimes. The question then becomes, how does a city rebuild itself after such a disaster?
On page 36, author Stephen J. Lyons tells the story of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, which was completely decimated by the Great Flood of 2008 and is making an unfathomable comeback. The Midwest is known for embodying a spirit and a puritanical work ethic, but no one thought that Cedar Rapids would rebuild, let alone so quickly.
Mother Nature can be relentless. And recent flood patterns illustrate that we’ll be battling a 500-year flood again within the next 10 to 20 years. The tenacity of Cedar Rapids should become the textbook for other communities on how to rebuild after the waters subside.