Rising Toll of Floods Calls for a National Investment in Our Natural Defenses


cairo flooding

Cairo, IL flooding on both of those rivers. Photo 2011 John Blair

It’s been over a month since NOAA released their spring flood forecast warning that the stage was set for potential widespread, record flooding in the Midwest for the third consecutive year. 

This week we are seeing the rising toll of flooding in Arkansas, Missouri, and Illinois among other midwestern states and our hearts go out to those who have suffered tremendous losses.

In southeastern Missouri, a levee along the Black River in the area of Poplar Bluff breached south of the city flooding the community. 

Northeast of Poplar Bluff, at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, town residents of Cairo, Illinois have been forced to evacuate. Floodwaters have now surpassed the highest level since 1937 and threaten to overtop or breach the floodwall protecting Cairo. The Corps of Engineers was forced to make a difficult decision: they had to use explosives to intentionally breach the Birds Point Levee and re-route the rising floodwaters onto farmlands into nearby Missouri to save the town of Cairo.

Amid widespread damage and loss of life, our immediate focus should be on protecting victims and helping communities recover. But we must also take this opportunity to reassess the way we manage floods to prevent these disasters from happening in the future.

 Until we better manage our rivers and improve our flood protection strategies, we will be confronted with crisis after crisis. That is where we find ourselves today, with the Army Corps left to a desperate measure of blowing up a levee to save Cairo, Illinois.   

Today, millions of Americans are living in harm’s way with inadequate protection from increasingly frequent floods. We have spent billions on gray infrastructure such as dams and levees, yet flood damage continues to increase, costing taxpayers an estimated $15 billion annually.  Huge federal outlays for flood protection  will be a thing of the past as the Administration works to achieve its goal of $4 trillion in deficit reduction over the next 12 years.  However, that doesn’t negate the necessity and moral imperative to protect life and property.

The real question is, how do we respond? 

American Rivers’ believes that the best outcome for communities and rivers is to protect and restore our natural defenses – our rivers, wetlands, floodplains, forests and upland and coastal areas.