Mid-Atlantic
Mississippi River floodwaters inundate the pavilion and a play area at Harriet Island Wednesday, March 27, 2019 in St. Paul, Minn. AP Photo/Jim Mone

Five common myths and misconceptions about flooding risks

Flooding, the costliest and most common disaster in the United States, leaves no part of the country untouched: from nor’easters along the coast of Maine, to king tides in Florida, to overflowing rivers in Nebraska, to mudslides in California.

After a “bomb cyclone” swamped the Midwest earlier last month, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration warned that this spring might be “an unprecedented flood season,” putting 200 million Americans at risk. Images of entire cities underwater, boats floating down interstates and bridges washed away capture the public’s attention. Despite the frequency of floods, dangerous myths persist, shaping how we prepare and respond to them. Here are five.

Myth No. 1

Floods are “natural” disasters.

Flood disasters are inevitably referred to as “natural.” See, for example, this headline from the Atlantic, about the 2016 flooding in Louisiana: “America Is Ignoring Another Natural Disaster Near the Gulf.” Or from the Los Angeles Times in 2017: “Harvey is likely to be the second-most costly natural disaster in U.S. history.” And this month, Gov. Pete Ricketts called the flooding in Nebraska “the most widespread natural disaster in our state’s history.”

But disasters are created by the interaction of a hazard and our communities. It may be natural for heavy rainfall or snowmelt to cause rivers to overflow their banks, but the actual destruction that results — damaged infrastructure, destroyed homes, ruined crops, washed-away topsoil — is a result of human behavior. Human activities destroy natural flood protection and put more people in harm’s way. When forests are cut down and bayous paved over to make way for development, it exacerbates a community’s overall flood risk.

And our efforts to prevent flooding can actually worsen it: Analyses by geologists at the University of California at Davis found that new levees along the Mississippi River made floods more frequent and more severe — spurring the construction of even more protective levees, and leading to a “hydrologic spiral.”

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