Did you know the most common natural disaster in the United States are floods? According to FEMA, around 90 percent of all natural disasters in the United States involve flooding.
The modern relationship between flooding and the United States actually has a deep history. Many flooding events and disasters spurred the United States’ biggest leaps in emergency management and preparedness, shaping the dance between the federal government and local governments’ mitigation and recovery efforts.
One More Time: Flood Control Acts of the 20th Century
The United States passed a dozen named Flood Control Acts through the 20th century alone. The very first iterations, however, were the Swamp Land Acts of 1849 and 1850, which returned control of many swamp lands to a handful of Southern states. Many of the states drained these swamp lands and allowed new developments to overtake the newly available land. Louisiana sold much of the released land in its Atchafalaya Basin to corporations and funded levees and periodic dredging with the cash.
One of the more significant pieces of legislation passed by Congress was the Flood Control Act of 1936, sneaking through during FDR’s New Deal. The bill authorized the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) and federal agencies to head civil engineering projects, many aimed at flood control.
The bill also enabled other agencies. The War Department (the predecessor to the Department of Defense) overtook investigations and improvements to rivers and waterways; the Department of Agriculture absorbed watersheds, waterflow retardation, and the prevention of soil erosion; and the Interior Department’s Bureau of Reclamation gained immunity from other authorities’ interference in reclamation projects.
Other FCAs made significant contributions, including the establishment of the cost-benefit analysis for federal policies in 1939 and removing congressional authorization for minor projects of the Corps of Engineers in 1948.
One Above the Rest: The FCA of 1965
The FCA of 1965 is arguably the most influential of the dozen legislations. The act followed Hurricane Betsy, a 1965 category 4 hurricane that impacted primarily Louisiana. Storm surge in Lake Pontchartrain from Betsy breached levees in New Orleans and inundated many of the city’s neighborhoods.
Of the 81 deaths caused by the storm, the majority were in Louisiana. Telecommunications and power outages came alongside the storm, plus a total of $1.42 billion dollars in damage across the U.S. South, Appalachia, and the Caribbean.
Under the FCA of 1965 and Congress’ direction, USACE assumed control over the system built to protect New Orleans from devastating storms. The Corps worked with the Orleans Levee District, the previous controllers of flood mitigation infrastructure in New Orleans, to increase the city’s and state’s resilience.
Floods and their havoc put flood damages under both the spotlights of Congress and the Oval Office. Many times did presidents, including Eisenhower and Truman, and other sponsors push for flood insurance, but other parties deemed the idea unfeasible commercially. Hurricane Betsy and other storms brought the issue to a boil, enough for President Lyndon B. Johnson and Congress to pass the National Flood Insurance Act of 1968. The bill created the National Flood Insurance Program and the Federal Insurance Administration, finally bringing accessible flood insurance to citizens.
The Effects of Hurricane Katrina
FCA legislation touched everything in the realm of preparedness and response. While these bills were aimed primarily at addressing floods, many of their principles and power reshuffles affected responses to all disasters. Each bill left a lasting stamp, and all of their changes culminate in the modern approach many state and local agencies use now.
In a way, the bills all slowly started to return planning and preparedness to state and local powers through transfers of control, agency creation, regular maintenance, and cutting of red tape on funding and relief.
Hurricane Katrina remains one of the most impactful disasters since the start of the 20th century. The storm was powerful in its own right, but its aftermath is where it made its name. Severe floods throughout New Orleans took the lives of almost many and caused $125 billion in damage. Cuts in federal funding years prior left many projects unfinished, further exposing the already flood-prone city to a storm ready to attack.
The federal response to the disaster was a watershed moment. Many criticized the approach and foresaw how to ensure better responses in the future. Congress soon after gave FEMA greater authority in moving resources for a disaster rather than waiting for a governor’s signal. States and local stakeholders now receive necessary resources ahead of disasters and within hours.
How Can You Prepare for a Flood
What can someone do on an individual level to prepare for a flood?
When a flood occurs, you need to be able to think quickly without any confusion. A key factor in a preparedness plan is knowing what to do during an event like this, and being capable of reacting immediately can really make the difference between life and death situations. During a flood warning, you should:
- Find safe shelter.
- Be sure to stay on high ground and evacuate as fast as possible, if needed. Make sure to have your essential items such as driver’s licenses, medication, and other important documents, in a waterproof bag.
- Do not walk or drive through flooded areas.
- It only takes just six inches of water to knock a person down. Floodwaters can be extremely powerful. Additionally, the water can hide the true condition of the roads below, making the safety of driving a stacked bet at best.
- Make an emergency kit.
- A kit filled with bottled water, canned food, first aid supplies, flashlight, and batteries is essential during a storm like this. Make sure to have any medication you require with you as well.
- Unplug all electronic equipment.
- If your house gets flooded, do not touch any of the electrical wires. Prior to the storm, make sure all your electronic devices are charged.
- Create a family emergency plan.
- Most importantly, make sure everyone in the household knows of the emergency plan. In the case of a flood, inform your household on where to meet and/or evacuate to. Each family member should bag a pack with all their essentials beforehand.