June 12th, 2008
05:12 PM ET

When the levees break

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2008/images/06/12/art.floodindiana.jpg width=292 height=320]

Adam Pitluk
Author, Damned to Eternity: The Story of the Man Who They Said Caused the Flood

I’m not a groundhog. I’m not a psychic, a soothsayer, or a fortuneteller (although at times, I do resemble that Zoltar creature from the movie Big). But I’m the guy who predicted these horrible Midwestern floods back in March. I spoke publicly about them, I blogged about them, and I put my wife to sleep with doomsday predictions that the summer of 2008 will resemble the summer of 1993. And history remembers the summer of 1993 as that of the 500-year flood.

Back then, the midsection of America looked more like Pangaea than industrialized society. More than a thousand levees broke up and down the Mississippi River and on adjoining tributaries. It was a horrible act of God for all affected by the floods, as well as a humbling all-for-naught experience on the part of the thousands of sandbaggers and volunteers. That is, it was a horrible act of God for every community except one: West Quincy, Missouri, pinned their levee’s failure on one man, who is serving a life sentence at the Missouri State Prison for intentionally causing a catastrophe.

The thing is, we should have seen the Great Midwestern Floods of 2008 coming. If 1993 taught us anything, it’s how to spot a potential deluge... That’s how I knew back in March that we were in trouble. Strangely, no media outlets went with the story. Just me, predicating into the ether, basing everything on my own research of soil and atmospheric science for the book, “Damned To Eternity.” Mostly, I know what I know because of the tutelage I received from Dr. R. David Hammer, a professor emeritus in the soil sciences department at the University of Missouri.

Several extenuating circumstances come into play:
Foremost, this past winter produced an inordinate amount of snow in the upper Midwest and pacific north rim. The snow mounted through a long, cold equinox. Then, an abrupt heat wave began to melt the pacts with rapid frequency. The water runoff started raising streams, lakes and tributaries. And as that happened, rainfall of unusual intensity and duration in specific spots began occurring—just like they did leading up to the 500-year flood of 1993.

Over the last 15 years, we seem to be having more intense storms more frequently. Some scientists and meteorologists predicted that the affects of climate change would be the catalyst for the increased frequency of storms in the Midwest. That situation is exacerbated by the fact that we’ve altered the entire native American landscape. There’s almost no natural vegetative buffer along river systems like there were in the days of yore. So when you have thunderstorms like the ones which have persisted on and off for the past month, there’s more water coming down and getting into the river systems, and it’s not getting into the ground like it used to.

First of all, everyone wants a house by a lake or a river. Aesthetically, that’s prime real estate. These new homes are springing up in places where over time, the landscape had evolved to handle this turbulent weather. So even though a knee-jerk reaction to dams bursting is to blame the Army Corps of Engineers, you shouldn’t. (Truth be told, you shouldn’t blame them for Katrina, either.) Most states do not have a comprehensive code of how urbanization should occur on a floodplain. Those decisions are left up to the municipalities. The people that do the designing and make the mistakes are not around when the rains come. It’s up to the homeowner. These lessons should have been learned a long time ago. But the mentality since 1993 has been: If that was the 500-year flood, I’ve got 485 years left. I’m safe, so I can build my home on the river.

The short answer: yes. In 1993, the bulk of flooding happened from late June through mid-July. Today, sections of Iowa, Wisconsin and Indiana are already worse than they were in 1993, and it’s not even summer yet. We’re entering a scenario like the one 15 years ago, only worse.

People along the Mississippi River need to pay particular attention to the flood conditions in Iowa. Back in 1993, the Raccoon River, which empties into the Mississippi River, was the last big surge. The Mississippi was already at flood stage, and when the Raccoon River held, it emptied its high water contents into the Mississippi.

Fast forward to today: It’s an unfortunately display of schadenfreude, but the current flooding in Iowa is benefiting Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky and Tennessee because it shaves some volume out of the river. But if the current sandbagging efforts in Cedar Rapids and Des Moines and Davenport and Dubuque are successful, the river’s crest will move downstream. All the while, tremendous pressure will be butting up against the levee walls downriver. It’ll take another situation of excessively high rainfall for weeks to cause the levees to either overtop or to burst outright, but then again, the forecasts do call for rain.

Filed under: 360° Radar • Severe Weather
soundoff (16 Responses)
  1. Mike

    I know what your going to say , but it must be said. Republicans have had the power , the blame falls at there feet. They negelected a Nation and watched there Americans Die , Starve , and Suffer from Katrina. But there has'nt been a Congressional Investigation into this horrible reality. Why Because if it is'nt your House, Car , are Kid....then you don't care .Republicans know this! They don't care for all as one , they care for Republicans are none. Now there are some lost Republicans that think the party represents them , but if they only knew thet truth. Basically its like this , those poor Afro Americans families suffered threw Slavery, Torture, Rape, they were denied the right to learn. They have seen the hate that lives in America , and have dealt with unfair attacks on there ability to live normal lives. But you tell me , how can a people over come so many things , if there very home won't support them. The Indians were given land and Casinos. The African Americans they get to watch the world move on with out them. Or at least thats how they must feel. I mean come on, right is right wrong is wrong. Whats amazing is that none of you so called news pro news people give a crap about real issues , you sit back with your heads all full of hot ego air. While the world suffers your Hipocracy.

    June 13, 2008 at 3:25 am |
  2. Emily--Cedar Rapids

    That's not true. FEMA will be at Kirkwood Community College here in Cedar Rapids as of tomorrow, just a couple of days after the flooding even started. People say the government is never available when needed. Not true. I have seen the flooding, I have seen people fleeing from their homes, never to return to the same welcoming place again. 10 feet of water downtown, rain still pouring down from the skies, yet so many people are still helping. Volunteers are working around the clock. Just like the tornado in Parkersburg, Iowa citizens will come together again and start rebuilding. We will not give up hope. We will not give up on each other.

    June 13, 2008 at 1:14 am |
  3. austin

    1.Do you think that all the tornados and flooding have to do with global warning?

    2. And i wonder why the tornados keep hitting the same four states.

    3.And do you think they will move to Ohio?

    June 12, 2008 at 11:22 pm |
  4. angela

    I must say that living here in Dubuque, Iowa we are very grateful for the efforts of all who helped with sandbagging, helping people and pets out of the evacuation areas and for the news keeping us up to date. Everyone has pulled together with hard work and prayers. Thank you!

    June 12, 2008 at 11:20 pm |
  5. johnney b

    I really fell sorry for those people and i really think that the storms will ease up. These people have gotten flooded 2 times this year and they don't deserve to get hurt again

    June 12, 2008 at 10:30 pm |
  6. Tucker

    I have just been watching the cnn news on the weather in america. When asked if the global warming is the cause the ans was a no. Please tell me that the america people are not so STUPID and selfish to consider that it could be anything else. It is inconceivable thats so many people are so enviromentally and globally ignorant to believe that what is hapeening to their country is natural..Will some one tell them that both the frequency, variation and the intensity of this weather is only going to worsen. Peerhaps with food becomiing so expensive and the necesity to walk instead of taking the car bcos oil is so dear we will see less hedious gross obesity

    June 12, 2008 at 10:18 pm |
  7. Annie Kate

    Its unfortunate that the media did not take interest in your predictions; why is it that it isn't news until it happens? Warnings like yours with good science behind them should be reported so people can prepare (if there is much way to prepare for this). Even if the media had reported it though, I wonder if people would have paid attention – it seems sometimes like the last warning Americans really listened to was delivered on horseback by Paul Revere.

    Annie Kate
    Birmingham AL

    June 12, 2008 at 9:40 pm |
  8. Rita Bunton

    John McCain just held a town hall meeting in New York and forgot the question asked by a Hispanic man. Check it out. He covered himself by asking the man to "give me a little more information about yourself."

    How in the heck does the question, "what kind of qualities will you look for in supreme court justices?" have anything to do with the questioner's background.

    McCain is not the guy the media portrays him to be. He is making way too many gaffs. It is either age or dementia. And it is the media's job to expose this. You goofed on the Iraq War and did not ask the tough questions. Now we are mired in a conflict with no easy way out. Please, please, do your job.


    June 12, 2008 at 8:24 pm |
  9. Sharon from Indy

    Why do humans continue to think we can divert or maintain the power of nature? Whether it is too much snow in the winter or lack of vegetation, we need to work together to help the families who have lost their homes. It does questions why lake or river front property is so pricey, though.

    June 12, 2008 at 8:22 pm |
  10. Donald, Florida

    I am a native of New Orleans. After the floods that followed Katrina I listened to many claim those floods as an act of God to wash away the sin and Godlessness in the city, instead of a catastrophe that cost thousands of good people their homes and livelihoods. Just recenly I watched video of a man losing his summer vacation home and listened to how tragic it was that this place was lost. Is this the same? Is God punishing people for their arrogance in thinking that these man made structures could hold back what he made? I find it interesting that when it is a predominantly black area affected, it is an act of God, but when it is America's heartland, it's a tragedy.

    June 12, 2008 at 7:41 pm |
  11. kent fitzsimmons,Kewanee, Illinois

    Anybody know how Grand Forks ND, or East Grand Forks, MN are in this year of flooding? These towns had extreme flooding 11 yrs ago on the banks of the Red River. But, they were smart enough to put money into a removable wall that would save these towns that are separated by the Red River. Anyone from these towns out there?

    June 12, 2008 at 6:32 pm |
  12. deborah, OH

    I certainly remember the FLOODS of 1993. And, this looks very bad, even worse.

    June 12, 2008 at 6:28 pm |
  13. Jenn/Monrovia, CA

    Gah...I remember all to well the floods of '93. I was a teenager in Sullivan Co. Missouri, not far from the Iowa border, and was travelling from my little village of Pollock, north of the county seat of Milan, to Kirksville, MO to Northeast Missouri State, (now Truman St.). I had to cross the Chariton River in Novinger both going to Kirksville and coming back. The weekend it finally flooded the bridge was the last weekend I had to go back and forth, and I could see the water just under the bridge, threatening to spill over. So not a fun moment.

    That was a horrible summer, and the Quincy flood made it worse, (that was all over the news where I lived as we weren't far from Quincy), and I still talk about that summer 15 years later as being the wettest I had ever been. I still remember my feet feeling as if they weren't dry until fall!

    It is awful the Midwest is going through this all over again so many years later. A part of me wants to gloat that THIS, (plus tornados, which terrify me, and snow, which I hate), is why I moved to Southern California. But...most of my family still lives in those areas being affected. This is not cool. But Midwesterners do know how to get by, they will make do as they can. They seem to always do.

    June 12, 2008 at 6:25 pm |
  14. Jill C.

    Holy smokes! Why has the media been asleep at the wheel??

    June 12, 2008 at 5:46 pm |
  15. Stacy

    Adam, you weren't the only one to see these floods coming. Back during the winter my local meteorologists pointed out that we hadn't seen snowfall like this since 1993. . . and we all know what happened that spring. I hope it doesn't get that bad again. I remember the river going right up to the St. Louis Arch steps.

    June 12, 2008 at 5:26 pm |
  16. Cindy

    It seems no matter how much of a forewarning that we have our government never does anything until it's too late. Then they are all in a tizzy trying to help people and to fix the problems. So I am not surprised one bit that none of them listened to you or anyone else about this. It seems that they will never learn.


    June 12, 2008 at 5:20 pm |