When Experience and Disaster Collide

Iowans have taken to calling this week’s devastating flooding “our Katrina.” Katrina does come to mind when you look at these photos of Cedar Rapids engulfed by the Cedar River. But Iowa is lucky to have been spared a Katrina-sized death toll.

In fact, far fewer lives have been claimed by this round of flooding than by the floods that ravaged the Midwest in 1993. Lessons learned from the 1993 floods may be helping to contain the damage.

That’s certainly the case in Des Moines, Iowa. There, in 1993, nearly half a million residents were left without drinking water when flood waters inundated the city’s water treatment plant. This time around, the plant’s levee system, which has been fortified over the last 15 years, is holding.

Experience isn’t always a lifesaver. Past encounters with monster hurricanes led many New Orleans residents to ignore evacuation orders in 2005, convinced they could survive the worst hurricane Katrina could throw at them. For many, it was a deadly choice.

In fact, as Amanda Ripley writes in her superb new book, The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes — And Why, older veterans of previous Gulf Coast hurricanes were the ones most likely to stay behind in the face of Katrina, because the strategy had served them well in previous storms.

Two-thirds of Katrina victims were over sixty and had been middle-aged when hurricane Camille battered New Orleans in 1969. It turns out that age and experience — not poverty — were the most important factors in determining who would remain in the path of the storm, and who would flee to safety.

For our readers in the American Midwest: if you lived through the 1993 floods, has what you learned then helped or hindered you this time around?


htb

I was in Iowa for a few weeks here and there during the Great Flood of 1993. I lived there for about three years before (and after) the flood, but missed the actual problem months.

Overall, I'd say that the state has a can-do attitude, that particularly its agriculture/industrial people can fix just about anything, and that -- now that I'm living in the Golden State, where people really do whine about "high taxes" and "bad roads" in the same breath (did I mention that we have friends who pay not quite $3,000 a year in property taxes on their million-dollar, walk-to-the-beach home?) -- I wish every election for the sensible legislators, who realize that one way or another you have to collect taxes to pay the bills.

Jim

OK. I've been dealing with tornadoes and floods for the past 3-4 weeks. The tornadoes were bad and pretty much wiped out the town of Parkersburg. Then the tornado headed east and tore up a lot of farm land. My brother-in-law was camping and had to take shelter (along with the other campers) in a cement block shower house. The tornado passed 1-2 miles from where they were. We were lucky. A friend of mine lost an uncle in Parkersburg when the tornado hit. He was heading for shelter and was struck in the head. He died a few days later.

The floods were bad. My office building had 6 feet of water in the first floor. Everything there was a total loss. My co-workers diligently tried to hold the water back with flood. But there was too much water. We sustained many millions of dollars worth of damage. We knew the flood waters were coming and we did everything we could to protect our homes, offices, and cities. But there was just too much water. We were lucky and had a disaster recovery plan in place and successfully implemented it for our business. Many other companies were not so lucky.

There is nobody to blame for the flood and we understand that. Complaining about it does no good. We pick up what's left. We help those who need help. We move on. That's pretty much life in Iowa.

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Marie

The lesson I learned is, that as I always suspected, the Katrina hurricane was not as bad as the attitudes of the people of New Orleans (some exceptions of course).

The people of New Orleans (with some exceptions) seemed to view the disaster there as something The Man did to them, and feel they are owed total care in every way by those of us who didn't go through it.

The people of Iowa seem to have a far more adult attitude.

Mub

Maybe the researchers compared the death rates of elderly who lived in new orleans during camille with the death rates of elderly who moved there after camille.

And the people complaining about the bad attitude of new orleans are almost certainly racists. You're probably the same people who thought the looters should have been shot. Iowa and New Orleans are completely different scenarios. If you need that to be explained then youre an idiot.

DB

Maybe I'm a bit too far from Iowa to judge properly, but there seems to be a lot less of constant blaming and name-calling and woe-is-me coming from Iowa.

I don't know about the rest of you, but when I think of Katrina, I don't think of the storm, but rather the constant bickering about who's getting rebuilt first, why everything is the government's fault, why this part of government failed the other part of government, about someone got praised when they should have been fired, George Bush doesn't care about black people, George Bush doesn't care about anyone, etc. All I've heard from Iowa is there's been a lot of damage but they will work together and get through this. Nothing like Katrina as far as I'm concerned.

Survivor of 93 and 08

I was 14 in a Mississippi river community in '93. Tons of kids played in the floodwaters in their back yards and a number of them drowned when they waded to an area where the land had washed away. Others got cuts from debris and some of them got really grossly infected. I now live in a community on the Iowa River where the water crested at 12 feet above the record set in 1993. There's been a lot of effort to keep people out of the floodwaters (eg, curfews) and reminders of how much more crap is in floodwater than in even normally-kinda-gross river water.

I think there's also been a more aggressive evacuation scheme put in place. In Iowa City, until last week there was no provision for mandating evacuations but it was enacted and used liberally (as most things are in Iowa City).

On a final note, it seems like getting volunteers has been easier this year, but that's just an observation. I don't have much to base it on. 15 years of pushing volunteerism might have something to do with it or maybe the record shattering nature of these floods. Or maybe just the different perspectives of a 29 year-old me.

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Lucas

Regarding #3, I've "been through" a huge number of tornadoes, and not only have none of them hit me, none of them have killed anyone in my town. So if a torndado ever does kill me, I'll probably be somewhere very unsafe. On the other hand, I wonder how many hours are wasted per life saved. Given that fewer than five thousand people in the US died in tornadoes from 1950-1999 (http://www.hprcc.unl.edu/nebraska/tornado-deaths-monthly-US.html), it wouldn't surprise me if it was on the order of millions of hours per life saved. Since the average person lives less than 700,000 hours in their entire life, I think the rational decision is to do absolutely nothing when the tornado sirens go off. Floods and hurricanes are probably a different matter.

Jason

I seriously doubt that two-thirds of Katrina victims were over sixty had anything to do with being around during hurricane Camille. Old people die in greater numbers in *any* disaster (look at heat waves) and I bet most of the elderly who died in Katrina were in hospitals or nursing homes--not in the flood waters or the Superdome, images that dominated the news. It is not the least bit surprising that poverty--again, despite press--was a limited or non-existent factor; if you are too frail to move on your own and/or have life-sustaining equipment fail, you are likely to perish.

This might be more understandable if we didn't get consumed with race. The sad thing is that old people dying in droves, as in those heatwaves, just doesn't grab the headlines.

phil

Also keep in mind that a large portion of Katrina's fatalities were secondary to the levy failures rather than the initial destruction of the storm

Kelly

I was in elementary school during the 1993 flood in Kimmswick, MO. It doesn't look like the current situation is going to be as epic as 93, but between that experience and our massive blackouts and storm damage from last summer, you'll find hardly anyone who isn't prepared for a disasterous situation.

frankenduf

2/3 of victims were > 60... well, ok, but young people survive everything better, go or no go

mike

"Respect my authority!" -- Eric Cartman

Jonathan

#2 probably belongs in the catchphrase post comments.

I can't speak for midwesterners, but thus far my experience with tornadoes has been a lot of misses and no hits. I still head for the closet in the middle of the house when the siren goes off.

Simon

I don't think you'll get very many responses to this from flood-victims. Their first instinct right now isn't likely to be rushing to the Freakonomics blog to help out.

Mike Jones

Your remark about the age of the Katrina victims is not very bright. In such disasters the death toll always comes stronger to older people, because they are poorer, they have more difficulties to evacuate the endangered areas, and especially because they are more fragile and sick. They easily die from infectious diseases or dehydration, that spares the youngest. Also, old people often depend on drugs and caretakers, and we all know how quick both run off in situations like this.

Richard

I have lived in Iowa since 1991, so I have experienced the '93 floods as well as our current ones. Having talked with many friends of mine who have lost houses or farm land to the flood water the consensus is that we will start rebuilding now, and not wait up for Federal agencies, like FEMA, to help us. A lot of us Iowans who were around in '93 have a better idea of what it takes to clean-up after such a flood. Mainly it just takes lots of time and people working together. There is no magic bullet for repairing flood damage. The main thing that the US should be concerned about is the fact that about 10% of Iowa's corn crop might be permanently lost this season, which will affect meat prices, as well as ethanol.

sb

I grew up next to the Mississippi River and helped sandbag in 93. Although I've moved since then, I was able to visit during Father's Day. I don't view midwesterners as very whiny. They're very matter-of-fact, problem-solution people.

After the flood in 93, practically every person called their insurance agent asking about flood insurance. Many of the people in Cedar Rapids were told that they didn't need flood insurance because they lived far away from the river. I'm sure this is the case for many other people. They don't show all of the flood on tv, they only show the parts next to river. Which can make any person wonder why they didn't have flood insurance. I'm sure most of them do. But, the flood reached for miles and I know those people who lived miles from river didn't have insurance, because someone told them they lived too far. That's enough to make me whine for a bit.