Opinion | Building up, the smart way, in a river town

For those who watched their property go underwater on February 21, this week’s for you. Today marks the midpoint of Flood Awareness Week, observed March 12 to 18.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, and the National Weather Service created Flood Week to spread awareness of high water threats during the spring melt.

It’s a time to ask yourself and your family a few basic questions: Is my home at risk? Do we have a plan and an emergency kit? Are our important documents safe? Do we have flood insurance?

It’s interesting that the 2012 Flood Week comes at a time when FEMA is in a court battle with the National Wildlife Federation over whether its national flood insurance program harms wild animals and their habitat, by allowing development in floodplains. Local cities defend the flood insurance program, arguing that without insurance, no one would ever build in a river town.

I see the ecologists’ argument—that it’s just plain boneheaded to build up in places where floods will, sooner or later, devastate your investment and trash the environment.

But, boneheadedness aside, I’ve spent most of my life in river towns, and I’’ll eat my hat if they all vanish.

I grew up on the Snake River in Eastern Washington, a river utterly tamed, and that control has carried its own drastic ecological consequences. Before coming to the Snoqualmie’s wild watershed, I spent years in the Nisqually Valley, where a flood from Mount Rainier once wiped out most of the river town of McKenna. FEMA buyouts followed in the flood’s wake.

That said, I still have a hard time imagining cities abandoning their rivers. Human beings, we clever animals, build our habitats in all kinds of risky places. Is it foolish to build in a floodplain? Sure, but it’s human nature to take risks and seize resources. The forces of nature, be they wind, water or climate, are going to do what they do—we have to work with the economic and ecological hand we’re dealt.

No Valley resident should want to see salmon go extinct, to see the food chain further unravel. But a blanket elimination of flood insurance isn’t the answer. Let’s try sharper approaches to development and habitat and flood management—I’ve no doubt that’s a better solution than abandoning our river towns.

The fate of the national flood insurance program will ultimately be determined by a federal judge, or possibly a succession of judges. What you and I can do, on an individual level, is recognize our own risks, then find ways to reduce them, as well as our own impacts on the watershed.

You can learn more about flood preparation at www.ready.gov.

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