Masters of disaster

Elitists cluck, "I told you so," after Floyd's floods

Issue: "Can the boom last?," Oct. 16, 1999

As everyone knows by now, the impact of Hurricane Floyd was a whole lot worse than suggested by early reports-or, for that matter, by the most sophisticated analyses available even after the big storm had moved on up the eastern seaboard. But Floyd's really evil impact may still be waiting to sweep away the hurricane's most unsuspecting victims.

Two weeks ago, WORLD suggested with its cover story that while the anticipation of Floyd had been terrifying, the realization turned out to be considerably less than the big storm's billing. Even last week's issue of WORLD may have given short shrift to the wide extent of the flooding that has resulted. Sixteen inches of rain fell on eastern Carolina during a short 12-hour period while Floyd came ashore and then headed north toward Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and New York. Even those states got a pretty good dousing, but for eastern North Carolinians, it seemed that half the Atlantic Ocean got dumped on their part of the state.

The continuing effect is enormous. It is reminiscent-in terms of its severity-of the terrible Mississippi River and Midwestern flooding of 1993. But the extent of this flood system, taking into account the number of people dislocated and the economic damage done, is perhaps even broader. Some relief experts call it the worst flood in American history.

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So what could be worse than that? What danger is still coming down the river?

If you listen to the doomsayers, the danger yet to come is the terrible brew of hog manure, human waste, and chemical pollutants that is spreading over thousands of square miles of the lowland areas and then the estuaries that fish and other wildlife call home. To be sure, there's room for worry about disease, interruption of important life cycles, and even the long-term removal of hundreds of thousands of acres from productivity.

What could be much worse than all that, though, is the arrogant opportunism we've already begun to see from some governmental, media, and higher educational sources. It's the kind of elitist response that says, "If you had only let us plan in the first place, this wouldn't have been nearly as bad." The implication, of course, is that we ought to turn all kinds of societal planning for the future over to these extraordinarily brilliant and farsighted folks.

So, "What kind of lessons can we learn from the flood of '99?" asked columnist Jack Betts in The Charlotte Observer last week. Predictably, he noted: "Decisions made long ago about growth in the Piedmont and in the eastern part of this state have surely worsened the catastrophe that Hurricanes Dennis and Floyd delivered in September-and that the people of North Carolina will have to live with for a long time to come." The implied solution is some kind of super-zoning agency that will tell citizens exactly where they can build and where they can't build, where they can farm and can't farm, and where a certain kind of mosquito will be permitted to live in protected sanctuary.

Mr. Betts even complained that years ago, some terribly shortsighted people had agreed to place interstate highways on "such low ground that a bad flood would make the main north-south and east-west routes unusable in this state's eastern counties." Nevermind the fact that we're talking here about a 500-year flood plain-an area the flood experts say can be expected to flood once in 500 years!

The big trouble with such elitists is that they really believe they are smart enough to take all the variables of life as it really is and structure them into a risk-proof society. In the process, of course, they're all too ready to run one of the biggest risks of all, that of sacrificing key freedoms of the very people they mean to protect.

Here in our city, for example, the zoning muckety-mucks have a new set of standards to be applied whenever someone wants to renovate some old property. Some of the ideas about setbacks and greenery are terrific, but they also tend to be pretty expensive. The result is, according to one architect friend, that more than two-thirds of the proposals for renovation that come before the approval board never are done-just because the cost is too high. In other words, property that might be improved isn't improved because the superplanners want it done their way or not at all.

There are indeed hundreds of lessons to be learned from a hurricane like Floyd, as from any of the disasters that have afflicted our society over the years. And there is a place for government to move in for a short time to alleviate the most severe of the suffering and dislocation that results. But it's far better to let society at large make its own gradual adjustments than to hand over to any unit the prerogative of imposing some grand design. People have a way of finding what's best, and they'll find the right solutions incrementally. And they'll enjoy their freedom in doing so a whole lot more than they would fitting in with some super blueprint.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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