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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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