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Sierra Magazine
Ways & Means: Unnatural Disasters

by Carl Pope

Last year Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee vetoed a bill that referred to floods and storms as "acts of God" on the grounds that doing so maligned the deity. Sadly, we can't call them "natural disasters" either, because so many of these and other catastrophes have ceased to be natural in any meaningful way.

In the past five years the federal government has spent $15 billion on disaster relief. The U.S. Forest Service has spent an additional $1.8 billion fighting wildfires, while state and local governments, businesses, and homeowners are out untold billions more. Expenditures by the Federal Emergency Management Agency have increased nearly fivefold.

People often feel helpless in the face of seemingly random natural events. They shouldn't. Truth is, we are increasingly the cause of these catastrophes. We are doing this to ourselves.

Doris Wilson of Louisville, Kentucky, learned this firsthand last year when her community flooded after a developer drained a wetland in neighboring Sutherland. "If it were not for Sutherland putting all this water on us, " she told the Courier-Journal, "we would not have had this kind of problem."

This wetland was destroyed with a permit from the federal government. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers grants such permits 99.5 percent of the time, while FEMA shells out millions for dams and levees for flood protection, and federal disaster insurance pays the victims. The government also finances environmental folly in California's Central Valley, where new towns are sprouting on what last year were old lakes. Last winter California newspapers carried pictures of developers in rubber boots standing in floodwaters, proudly displaying the site of their planned new communities.

The Mississippi River, which has lost 90 percent of its floodplains to agriculture and development, now floods in even moderate water years-despite 27 dams above St. Louis and massive levees. The river, in effect, suffers from clogged arteries; floods are the riparian equivalent of a heart attack.

These days, "natural" disasters are compounded by environmental mismanagement and disregard for natural processes. Developers, mining companies, and timber operators tear up landscapes in mild weather with no concern for what will happen when the rain, wind, or drought comes. The race to cash in on the appeal of beachfront living, for example, has strewn the Gulf and Atlantic coasts with homes and condos where hurricanes are certain to strike. When they do, taxpayers will pick up the pieces through federal disaster insurance. Cash, however, cannot compensate for human loss: last year government-approved logging on steep slopes in California and the Pacific Northwest unleashed mudslides that killed a dozen people. The same abused land that slides in the winter burns in the summer. Brutal logging and overzealous fire suppression on public and private forests in the Sierra Nevada and the Cascades have produced a forest mix likely to dry out and burn savagely in the first drought.

Even hurricanes, once symbols of human insignificance, can now be caused by our folly. Reckless burning of fossil fuels has increased the frequency of extreme weather events by 20 percent this century. A study by the Japanese government predicts a 60 percent increase in the number of hurricanes hitting our East Coast as a result of global warming. On the West Coast, Hurricane Pauline killed hundreds in Mexico. Before that, Nora, the strongest hurricane ever recorded in the northeast Pacific, narrowly missed Southern California. Had this storm hit-as one eventually will-we would have witnessed citizens fleeing low-lying developments in San Diego and Orange counties in the same sport utility vehicles responsible for shifting global temperatures into overdrive.

Of course, human activity has provoked flood, fires, and famine for thousands of years, albeit on a far smaller scale. This is why, since the Middle Ages, English common law has held landowners responsible if they manage their property to the detriment of their neighbors. It also allows no claim for those who put themselves in harm's way to be bailed out by the community.

Corporations spend millions trying to frustrate the application of these commonsense principles. The Oregon timber industry, fearing lawsuits from homeowners wiped out by mudslides, quietly won indemnification through special state legislation. Only two months before floods damaged 40,000 homes in Louisville, development advocates were denouncing new federal rules designed to preserve wetlands and minimize flooding in southwest Jefferson County.

"There is a definite need to preserve wetlands," one real- estate broker proclaimed, "but not in Jefferson County." Ever so slowly, some federal agencies are realizing that preventing disasters is cheaper than cleaning up after them. "If you put a corridor of one hundred feet on each side of the river and don't allow development," says Dave Gore, an Army Corps of Engineers planner, "in the long run you're saving yourself a lot of money, headache, and heartache." At FEMA, 15 percent of disaster-relief funds now goes to "pre-disaster mitigation," such as moving 10,000 homes out of floodplains in the Midwest.

Meanwhile, the rest of us can prevent disaster by exercising our rights: our common-law right to sue those whose reckless exploitation of the planet threatens our safety, and our democratic right to throw out public officials too blinded by money to remember that forests burn, water flows downhill, and floodplains flood.

Carl Pope is the executive director of the Sierra Club. He can be reached by e-mail at

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