Gilbert White and the Flood Problem

HOOKE: If you had to name one person in our
history who tackled the problem of floods, it would be Gilbert White. He
started his career during a period of particularly devastating floods in the
United States. Floods that displaced hundreds of thousands of people. WHITE: And I
first started getting a serious interest in flood problems in 1934. I had finished
work for a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree at the University of
Chicago Department of Geography, and I was about to starting my doctoral
dissertation on floods when my supervising professor said would I come
to Washington and work with him for eight months on a study of the
Mississippi Valley waters, including floods and irrigation. So I went off to
Washington for eight months and I stayed eight years. HOOKE: Gilbert White didn’t just stay in
Washington, he worked his way up to the White House. It wasn’t long before he was
advising President Franklin Roosevelt on matters of natural resources and in his
spare time, his spare time, he was writing a doctoral dissertation for the ages:
Human Adjustment To Floods. In this dissertation he articulated with an
unprecedented clarity how structural efforts to control nature like dams and
levees might actually enhance the problem; might make it more intractable.
Gilbert argued instead that the path to resilience was a balance between
structural approaches and softer approaches that had to do with people’s
use of land. Instead of moving water away from people, he argued that people should
move away from water. Gilbert didn’t finish his dissertation
in just any time in history. He happened to finish it a few months after the US
entry into World War II, and he didn’t do what you and I and most experts of
any stripe would do, particularly if we had a White House job. He didn’t say, “Oh
well I’m needed here where my expertise matters.” He embedded himself in the south
of France. Not with a gun, but with a Quaker sense of purpose that there were
people of peace he needed to help out. Saved many lives while he was doing that,
but it was dangerous work and he was caught by the Nazis and interned in
Europe for the remainder of the war. Because he was so young, when he returned
from the war he was at the start of a vast and varied career. Much of that was
spent in different academic roles. But he always kept returning to hazards
environmental problems and especially floods. And of course the devastating
floods kept coming. NARRATOR: 1960 1922 1937
We built a hundred cities and a thousand towns.
At what cost! HOOKE: Gilbert’s work had been growing in reputation during this time
and much of that stemmed from his insight, which was summarized in this
quote: “Floods are acts of God, but flood losses are largely acts of man.” Let that
sink in a bit. [Music]
So moving forward to the 1960s, Gilbert White was asked to review the
idea of a National Flood Insurance Program. He’s interested in this as an
incentive for communities to adopt more resilient practices. He had seen how
challenging it was to get enforceable regulations, so he was looking for an
incentive. The flood insurance wasn’t an end in itself. It was designed to
encourage communities to adopt and enforce better floodplain regulations.
But Gilbert was concerned. Wary, he spoke openly about the threat that subsidies
to that insurance charges below the rates that the private market would
support would aggravate the whole flood problem if not very carefully managed
and thoughtfully implemented. [Music] Gilbert was also deeply concerned about
using the 100-year flood standard as the basis for any future insurance
program. The selection of this standard was essentially experimental; merely a
starting point. He was told by the NFIP administrator it would be assessed and
changed if needed, as time progressed. WHITE: I would share this special committee, it was
set up by the bureau of the budget, and that wrote the report on the idea of
having national flood insurance. And our task force was quite explicit in saying
that there should be an appraisal of, after a few years, of what would seem to
be the effect of the regulations. But it is also fairly clear that there is not
interest in the part of the government at present in re-examining the idea of
using 100-year flood as a criteria. HOOKE: Today of course floods have gotten more
frequent. They’ve gotten more severe, and the costs of the program have exploded.
The claims against the flood insurance program amount to tens of billions of
dollars. The forgiven claims amount to 16 billion dollars. But those figures don’t
speak to the total cost of failure to adjust to the flood problem. The cost of
human suffering, devastated lives, individual financial calamity, social
disruption, health problems, death itself. Those scenes from Gilbert’s early years
are still repeating and so were the costs.
[Music] The good news is we’ve got a strong FEMA.
We’ve got a well-equipped, well-trained, highly motivated passionate workforce.
They’re working domestically and abroad. They’re working in state and local
levels, with tribal nations, and every piece of FEMA, including the National
Flood Insurance Program, is contributing. But the disasters continue to roll long
and roll over us. Costs are mounting, the frequency are going up, the number of
people impacted is going up. We’re losing ground on this problem. We’re increasing
our exposure in hazardous areas. We’re still building and rebuilding and
floodplain. So the big news is future problems are going to dwarf the problems
of the past. [Music]
We have to be realistic about the future. We’ve hardwired a lot of vulnerability
into the system over the last 50 years by building too low, by building
extensively in the floodplain, by building in adequately, and those
vulnerabilities are going to be exposed by the climate change of the future. That
climate is going to have more extremes. They’re going to be a greater magnitude,
greater duration. They’re going to be occurring and reoccurring in time short
compared with our ability to recover. And so we have a social challenge in front
of us. As Gilbert said, “Disasters are largely a human construct.”
In the same way resiliency can only be a human construct. It’s up to us to harness
tomorrow’s tools to deal with these challenges of the future. But more
importantly, more fundamentally, as Gilbert the Quaker, as Gilbert the
humanitarian would say, “We have to build a sense of responsibility into our
actions.” We need to do that if we’re going to get past adjustment of floods
as an aspiration, and get to adjustment to floods as a
reality. [Music]

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