While some parts of the country have too little water, New York has too much of it — at least at times. And, whether the reason is climate change or something else, those times are coming with increasing frequency: Upstate has had nine major floods over the last four years, costing hundreds of millions of dollars in damages, and even lives. It’s time to stop treating these events as unavoidable emergencies, and start trying to prevent them.
How? Some of the ways were discussed at the first-ever state flooding summit, held last week in Binghamton, scene of devastating flooding in 2004, 2005 and 2006. (In the Capital Region, Canajoharie and surrounding areas got the worst of it in 2006.) The conference was attended by state and local officials, as well as first-responders.
As Michael Balboni, the state’s deputy secretary for public safety, explained, it’s not enough to wait for the next flood, then apply for federal disaster funds, rebuild what we can and simply go back to business as usual. Something more is needed — like a long-term, comprehensive strategy that will allow us not only to clean up after floods, but to stop doing things to make them and their effects worse.
Those things include putting up retaining walls and straightening out waterways, which only serve to exacerbate flooding for communities downstream.
And eliminating wetlands, which act like sponges, sopping up excess water. And paving over open space, which contributes to runoff. And building housing, shopping centers, and other developments on flood plains.
These land-use mistakes all played a part in the Hurricane Katrina disaster and, to a lesser extent, in nearly every major flood that occurs these days. They are allowed by lax laws and regulations, and even encouraged by subsidies, including cheap federal flood insurance. The costs, like the water, have become too high. We’ve got to change the way we do things.