The great Mississippi has overflowed its banks, inundating towns and cities along its course in what some are calling a hundred year flood. Memphis has been struck, the waters have reached the bottom of Beale Street. New Orleans is bracing for the onslaught of the waters:
New Orleans is having a bad case of nerves. The Mississippi River has flooded catastrophically upstream and its swelling waters are moving inexorably down toward the Big Easy — and its traumatic memories of recent disasters, Katrina and the Gulf oil spill. “We’re in a weird situation,” observes Linda Jackson, an activist in the Lower Ninth Ward. Her district is particularly anxious: the neighborhood has two functioning bridges from which people can see the swelling Mississippi. The river is already at the top of many levees. The murky, dark green river is unusually choppy, causing ferries to sometimes rock uneasily. Cruise ships appear taller among this city’s bundle of downtown skyscrapers. The whole thing is drawing hordes of people to the levees, prompting the authorities to close some sections. In the Uptown area, overlooking the river, a part of the levee is a bit of dirt held together by wood — and the dirt is falling in some spots.
“Anytime we see water,” Mike Couste, an executive chef, said at the levee near the Audubon Zoo early Tuesday afternoon, “we get nervous.” Says Jackson, the neighborhood activist: “It’s only a matter of time before we flood again.”
People who farm the bottom land are philosophical. It is the richest farmland because it is flooded periodically. They knew the risks but they thought the rewards were worth them.
Some people live in the bottom land. They’ve lost everything now because they weren’t eligible for flood insurance. Some will cut their losses and leave. Others will return to rebuild as best they can. They don’t know any other way of life.
Civil engineers don’t design the systems of steel, concrete, and earth that are their work to withstand any conceivable stresses. That would be impossibly and unjustifiably expensive. Nothing would ever be built. Systems are built to withstand a 10 year flood, a 20 year flood, a 50 year flood. This spring’s floods are straining those systems but so far they’ve behaved as they were designed to.
Levees in Missouri have been detonated. That’s as designed. The last time that was done was more than 70 years ago. The Ensley Berm at Memphis is being reinforced and so far it’s holding.
People who live far from the river and thought themselves safe are being flooded out, too, as the waters back up every tributary. This is as designed, too.
The institutions that shore up our society have met their own hundred year flood and it strongly appears to me that they are failing. Last week the Medicare trustees announced that the Medicare Trust Fund will be actuarially insolvent in 2024. It will come much sooner than that because the assumptions on which they base their conclusions (as pointed out by their own actuaries) are hopelessly optimistic. Insolvency will come for Social Security much sooner than expected as well.
Bruce Krasting notes that the Highway Trust Fund, too, is failing:
Another trust fund going broke. In a year! Actually, these trust funds don’t go broke, they just cutback on what they are paying out. How big a cutback?
The cutback would need to be one-third.
Some of the pain is self-inflicted. We have known that the Baby Boomers would grow old and retire for nearly 70 years. It is no surprise.
I suspect that we didn’t expect a housing bubble and a financial crisis to coincide with that demographic inevitability although, as I’ve been saying here for some time, I believe that these things are all interrelated.
We are in the middle of a hundred year flood. The end of Beale Street is flooded. We need to start seeking higher ground.
The time to shore up is before the house is flooded, not after. Trying to do so afterwards will result in greater loss and a poorer job. Don’t complain that you liked your patio the way it was. The flood can’t be stopped.