A Surprising Paradox of Major Floods

By Ross Pomeroy - RCP Staff
March 31, 2020
A Surprising Paradox of Major Floods
AP Photo/Gerald Herbert
A Surprising Paradox of Major Floods
AP Photo/Gerald Herbert
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The spring flood season is upon us in the United States. As temperatures rise, the snows of winter melt and trickle across the landcape into rivers, whose steady flows turn to rushing torrents. Rising waters boosted by wet weather overflow their banks and pour onto farm fields, highways, and city streets.

Last year, record floods along the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers caused $2.9 Billion worth of damage in Nebraska and Iowa, flooding at least one million acres of farmland and killing three people.

While floods and other natural disasters can inflict unfortunate death and destruction upon individuals, they can paradoxically benefit communities in the long run.

In the short term – over a span of a few years – floods can transform urban areas into downtrodden, waterlogged ghost towns. But you might be surprised to learn that in the long term – think more than ten years – floods and other natural disasters actually seem to grow economies and populations. Laurence C. Smith, a Professor of Environmental Studies and Professor of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences at Brown University, explained this apparent paradox in his forthcoming book Rivers of Power.

"Through a nationwide analysis of migration data, James Elliott, a professor of sociology at Rice University, found that while natural disasters definitely push marginalized people out, they also pull other marginalized people in... All across America, these traumatic events seem to trigger localized economic and population growth spurts. The greater the damage, the bigger the spurt, often even surpassing the pre-disaster status quo."

Smith cited New Orleans as a prime example. In 2005, the city was decimated by Hurricane Katrina - more than 80% of it was inundated at one point. Once flood waters subsided, however, reconstruction and repopulation began in earnest, and a steady trend of population decline that had persisted for decades suddenly reversed. New Orleans' population rose from 347,824 in 2010 to 393,292 in 2017.

Smith described a few reasons why floods that sow short term disaster can revitalize cities in ensuing years.

"Cash inflows of outside recovery money, together with a disrupted local workforce and social fabric, create new employment opportunities attractive to newcomers having a hard time elsewhere. Insurance company payouts, federal disaster-relief loans, and charitable donation monies pour in. City planners dust off long-unfunded redevelopment plans to turn catastrophe into opportunity. New jobs materialize, not only for the construction trades but for planners, designers, engineers, and food services. Within a few short years, these transfusions of money and people can shape a flooded city's economy and demography in lasting ways."

These auspicious circumstances may not manifest for every city, and many municipalities do succumb to rising waters. In the aggregate, however, data suggest that cities can flourish years after floodwaters recede.

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