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Midwest floods are another wakeup call

Capitalist gov’t does little as climate disasters grows

Published Jun 26, 2008 7:46 AM

The floodwaters caused by extreme weather are receding in the upper Midwest, but they have left behind at least 24 people killed and 148 injured. As of June 24, some 35,000 had been displaced from their homes and lost all their possessions. Between southern Iowa and St. Louis, the water had topped or breached 31 levees along the Mississippi River. More flooding may still occur further downstream along the Mississippi.

Volunteers from the community, people returning to their homes and emergency workers face a toxic cocktail of manure, pesticides, mold and raw sewage in the waters surrounding them, not to mention swarms of mosquitoes. It is estimated that it will take days and even weeks for the floodwaters to totally recede.

The floods have resulted in record-high corn prices. About one quarter of the corn crop had already been diverted to the production of ethanol in the past two years. Corn is not only a staple found in many food products consumed throughout the world but is also the primary feed used for raising livestock. The prices of chicken, pork and beef are also expected to increase.

An estimated 4 million acres of prime farmland have been washed out by the floods, and analysts predict that the area may produce 15 percent less corn than last year. In what will probably turn out to be a stunning underestimate, the federal government predicts that food prices will rise by 5.5 percent this year.

As climate change threatens to increase the occurrence and severity of extreme weather events on the planet, the recent storms and flooding in the Midwest have shown how the lack of planning under capitalism can have exponentially devastating consequences.

Capitalist development leads to deadlier rivers

Even the most openly capitalist of all the newspapers, the Wall Street Journal, reports that a push for development which paved over wetlands and flood plains in the St. Louis area has increased the likeliness of huge floods there. “Since the historic flood of 1993, nearly 30,000 homes have been built on land that was underwater around the Mississippi and Missouri rivers near St. Louis,” the Journal states. “By building along the riverbanks and forcing the Mississippi into a bed that is less than half the width of where it ran a century ago, residents are displacing water and forcing the river to run faster and higher.” (June 19)

The increase in development along riverbanks has led, in turn, to an increase in the construction of levees. However, these same levees channel runoff water back into the river, raising the water level once again.

The results can be found in the record-breaking flood levels seen recently. During the big floods of 1993, the Mississippi River crested 12 feet higher than it did during the floods of 1903, even though the same amount of water washed down the river. During the floods this month, the Cedar River in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, crested 12 feet higher than the previous record in 1851. Record flooding has been reported this year at 12 locations on four Iowa rivers.

Many of those who lost their homes in the recent floods, instilled with a false sense of security due to nearby levees, did not have flood insurance. In Gulfport, Ill., a town that was completely flooded over in recent weeks, the Federal Emergency Management Agency had rated two levees as sufficient to withstand a 100-year flood (a flood that has a one in 100 chance of happening in any given year). As a result, only 28 of the 200 residents there had flood insurance.

The problem is compounded by a lack of comprehensive planning when it comes to the building and maintenance of the levees, which are controlled by a hodgepodge of federal, local, county and state officials, and even individual community members.

A recommendation by a committee of experts, after the 1993 floods, to put all levees under federal jurisdiction was never enacted. Some of the levees have not even been recorded by federal officials. This lack of coordination makes it difficult to accurately predict where water levels will break over the levees.

Dr. Gerald G. Galloway, Jr., chairperson of the committee and a former brigadier general with the Army Corps of Engineers, told the New York Times that after Hurricane Katrina Congress passed a bill to inventory and inspect levees, but neglected to provide enough money to do so. (June 22)

Meanwhile, a lack of funding has forced the U.S. Geological Survey to discontinue hundreds of stream flow gauges across the country, making flood prediction increasingly difficult.

Profits over people

in agricultural production

Even more lack of foresight can be seen in the profit pressures that have shaped capitalist agriculture in the region. The Washington Post reports, “Some Iowans who study the environment suspect that changes in the land, both recently and over the past century or so, have made Iowa’s terrain not only highly profitable but highly vulnerable to flooding.” (June 19)

Natural characteristics of the land that served to absorb water have often been replaced with little thought to the repercussions. Lands closer to creeks and rivers have increasingly been farmed. Ninety percent of the wetlands have been lost, according to Mary Skopec, a water quality monitor for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. (Washington Post, June 19)

In addition, 106,000 acres of Iowa land have been taken out of the federal Conservation Reserve Program in the past two years. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, the program “encourages farmers to convert highly erodible cropland or other environmentally sensitive acreage to vegetative cover, such as tame or native grasses, wildlife plantings, trees, filter strips, or riparian buffers. Farmers receive an annual rental payment for the term of the multi-year contract.” (www.nrcs.usda.gov) The vegetative cover that the CRP encourages serves to absorb water.

The recent boom in the production of ethanol from corn for use as an additive to gasoline has led to an increase in cultivation of the crop, leading some farmers out of the CRP. Corn now covers a third of Iowa’s land surface.

At least one politician, Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, has called on the Agriculture Department to release tens of thousands of farmers from their CRP contracts in response to the recent floods—when it’s apparent that the opposite, increasing the amount of conservation lands, would have a positive effect on flood threats in the future.

The White House has asked Congress for $1.8 billion in emergency aid for the flood. Meanwhile, more than $531 billion has been spent to date on the war in Iraq alone. (www.nationalpriorities.org) The recent war-funding bill passed by the House of Representatives calls for another $162 billion for the war—and a paltry-by-comparison $2.7 billion for emergency flood relief.

From protection of the environment to agricultural development and emergency response, a complete neglect of preventative measures has spelled destruction for the people of the Midwest and beyond and portends future chaos.

This lack of planning is an inherent characteristic of the capitalist system, which places the drive for profit above all other concerns, heedless of the destruction it causes. It will take the continuing people’s struggle to see to it that survivors of natural disasters are taken care of. It will take a new social system to roll back the devastation created by the one we now live under.

E-mail: [email protected]