Farming the Bottomland

I grew up on the banks of the Mississippi and when I was a kid a common sight, particularly on the Illinois side of the river was the miles and miles of crops planted in the bottomland, the low-lying land adjacent to the river, sometimes nearly up to the water’s edge. That is floodplain, the Mississippi does flood, and practically every year you’d hear demands from farmers whose crops had, predictably, been flooded out for assistance from the state or federal government.

The bottomland was extremely rich and fertile and easy to till. When you won, crops were large and you won big. When you lost, you could lose everything.

This morning I read a plea to save Miami:

“Climate change is no longer viewed as a future threat round here,” says atmosphere expert Professor Ben Kirtman, of the University of Miami. “It is something that we are having to deal with today.”

Every year, with the coming of high spring and autumn tides, the sea surges up the Florida coast and hits the west side of Miami Beach, which lies on a long, thin island that runs north and south across the water from the city of Miami. The problem is particularly severe in autumn when winds often reach hurricane levels. Tidal surges are turned into walls of seawater that batter Miami Beach’s west coast and sweep into the resort’s storm drains, reversing the flow of water that normally comes down from the streets above. Instead seawater floods up into the gutters of Alton Road, the first main thoroughfare on the western side of Miami Beach, and pours into the street. Then the water surges across the rest of the island.

The effect is calamitous. Shops and houses are inundated; city life is paralysed; cars are ruined by the corrosive seawater that immerses them. During one recent high spring tide, laundromat owner Eliseo Toussaint watched as slimy green saltwater bubbled up from the gutters. It rapidly filled the street and then blocked his front door. “This never used to happen,” Toussaint told reporters. “I’ve owned this place eight years and now it’s all the time.”

The sad fact is that Miami is a terrible place for a large city. The average elevation of the city is 6 feet and its highest elevation is around 40 feet. Sea level will inevitably vary and you will have storm surge to contend with. What was true eight years ago may not be true today and what’s true today won’t be eight years from now. That’s a fact of life with or without global climate change.

The creation of the city of Miami, largely a 20th century project, is the equivalent of farming the bottomland. Enormous fortunes have been made by land developers, construction companies, and others eager to capitalize on the gold rush that began in earnest in the 1920s. Housing prices are high not the least because there’s so little land suitable for development.

Our reaction to Miami’s problems caused by rising tides should be identical to the reaction to the policy with regards to the floodplain of the Mississippi. We should resist the temptation to aid the city and over time it should be bought out and returned to nature.

That’s an obvious political non-starter. What will happen is that Miami, home to many elderly people who vote, will organize and successfully receive assistance for what was always inevitable and could never be prevented, again with or without global climate change. The rent-seekers we will always have with us.

14 comments… add one

  • steve

    Let Florida handle it however they want. The rest of the country should not pay for it. This should go for all resort coastal cities.

    Steve

  • ...

    I’m wondering how much of the land being discussed in the Miami article is “protected” by sea walls.

    Just across the inter-coastal waterway from St. Augustine is (creatively enough) the community of St. Augustine Beach. At the north end of the beach, just south of the inlet, is Anastasia State Recreation Area. It’s mostly non-developed sea shore, so inland you’ve got all the kind of scrub shore-line plants you might expect, and dunes. Lots of sand dunes. The beach front is very wide from the dune line to the ocean, even at high tide. (Assuming no storm, of course.

    Just to the south of the state recreation area are hotels and such. Sea walls “protect” the properties from the ocean. No matter how much they try, the beach just keeps washing away, and they have to keep dredging up more sand to replenish the beach. You can walk from one beach to the other, they’re right next to each other. And it’s night and day in terms of the quality of the beaches.

    Sea walls destroy the habit in places like Florida, and there are consequences for that. I’m betting that Miami has lots and lots of sea walls where they’re having problems.

  • ...

    Let Florida handle it however they want. The rest of the country should not pay for it.

    Anyone want to bet that steve was bitching about the government not doing enough for New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina?

  • IMO there’s a better argument for federal involvement in the rebuilding of New Orleans than for many other places if it can be established that the USACE actually fomented New Orleans’s problems. I think that’s a stretch but it’s at least arguable.

    Not long after Katrina I expressed the uncomfortable truth, much of which has come to pass, that New Orleans needed to be rebuilt by the people who lived there. One of my best posts, I think.

  • TastyBits

    Federal spending should have gone towards infrastructure repair and general cleanup. There could have been a low interest non-dischargeable loan program setup to help people, but if you did not have flood insurance, too bad so sad.

    A program to make available low cost building materials would have been good – government drywall instead of cheese. It would not be free, and it could be tied to the loan program.

  • CStanley

    Every time I hear or read these discussions I think of my Dad, who looked at the floodplain maps of New Orleans before buying our home there in 1976. The home that was 5 ft above sea level, in Algiers, that came through Katrina high and dry. Mom made a nice profit on it when she decided not to return after the storm and the inventory of habitable homes was low.

  • steve

    “Anyone want to bet that steve was bitching about the government not doing enough for New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina?”

    I will take that bet. Will see if archives from when I was actively blogging have my posts. WHat I said was that New Orleans has some value as a port city and for national defense. It is the port city for the Mississippi. There is always going to be some city at the end of our largest river system that will serve as a port and cities upstream will benefit. To whatever extent the country as a whole benefits from that, we should be willing to help subsidize the place. However, we should not spend anything towards rebuilding in the entertainment areas. Louisiana can pay for new restaurants and sports facilities and hotels if they want. We should also not be paying for rebuilding in the low lying areas that will always be flood prone.

    Steve

  • Guarneri

    There are some very interesting reports accessible to non-engineers about the levee and pump station failures in Katrina. There clearly were design flaws. However, lost in the finger pointing are two essential and not surprising themes. The flood protection system was designed for a so called “standard” storm not a bad one. This was dictated by congress in the late 60s and 70s. They gambled.

    Second, the various agencies involved didn’t talk to each other. You add to the fact that in the 90s recognition of flaws and remediation work was poorly advocated for funding by the feds and you had a ticking time bomb.

    Hmmm. Poorly designed. Poorly coordinated. Poorly executed. And then….”not my fault.” Sounds like obamacare.

  • Guarneri

    Ps

    Design flaws and proper safety factor standards

  • ...

    Drew, New Orleans got a category one hurricane from Katrina. You could see that from the wind in the live reports and the wind damage from afterwards. Katrina was a monster, near where it made landfall. In New Orleans it was pretty pedestrian, by the standards of tropical cyclones.

  • TastyBits

    New Orleans proper was flooded due to a floodwall failure. The wall did not go deep enough, and the pressure of the increased lake level caused the wall to buckle. This allowed water to seep under the wall and eventually form a hole. As the hole increased, more of the wall buckled, and the problem increased.

    I remember hearing the reports of a leak at the floodwall, and I knew the city was going under. It is still sickening.

    On my side, the f*cking parish (county) president decided to evacuate the pump operators, and the water backed-up. The pumps have generators, but they were off the whole time. In one area, the mayor and police chief broke in and turned on the pump, and their residents did not get any water.

  • Guarneri

    Ice. It’s listed as a three in all the reports and as a five in the gulf before hitting land when the surge dynamics developed. Thr barometric pressure was also quite low.

    Tb. There is the issue you cite, failure to understand the robustness of the materials under the walls and an overtopping erosion problem. The walls were also designed at safety factors of 1.2 whereas the standards are now 1.4 to 1.5.

  • And, as I said above, those walls were the Corps’s responsibility.

  • TastyBits

    It was not an overtopping problem. Water was able to get under the walls when they began buckling. This was due to the footings not being sunk deep enough. Floodwalls were a bad idea. The Corps was against them, but there were used for drainage during storms.

    The problem is not the safety margin. It is the safety expectation. If you want to live in New Orleans or any flood prone city, it comes with risks. If you want to live in NYC, it comes with risks also, but somehow, we are able to spend trillions of dollars to keep a few terrorists out of New York.

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