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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?