Why do you live in a flood zone?

How to empathize with people who experience devastating loss after fires and floods

  • A Red Cross volunteer comforts the sister of a fire victim while friends and volunteers sift through the residents home searching for valuables after a 2007 fire in Rancho Bernardo, California.

    Andrea Booher/FEMA

In the 30 years I spent living in the West, I heard a constant refrain every spring: “Every year, there are floods in the Midwest. Why do those people continue to live there?”

There was the usual outrage about the cost to taxpayers of flood recovery, without connecting the dots to the price of containing fires or mudslides in the West. (Compare those costs to fighting two wars the last decade.)

Empathy for the flood victims’ emotional devastation was sadly lacking among many complainers. Yet all disaster victims, no matter whether they live along the Mississippi River or in the tinder-dry forests of Arizona, have an important thing in common: They share an emotional trauma that can last for years. The depth of that after-effect was perhaps the greatest lesson I learned while researching my book on the historic 2008 floods that devastated Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Following a natural disaster, communities heroically come together in the short term. Volunteers run on pure adrenaline. But that kind of energy is not sustainable. When the waters recede and the ashes cool and the headlines move on to a newer disaster, the residents are left to rebuild their lives, and this becomes the hardest work of all.

During my interviews with flood victims in Cedar Rapid, there were always two moments when people broke down. The first was when they recalled the goodness of others, sometimes strangers they would never meet again. The second was when they recalled entering their ruined homes for the first time. They were overcome with loss when they saw the family photos soaked in sewage or their grandmother's shattered china. All the money in our depleted federal treasury cannot compensate for those losses.

The mistake that communities often make is not attending to the emotional distress that comes with the loss of neighborhood ties. Iowa City psychiatrist Janeta Tansey told me that she saw emotional similarities between cancer patients and flood victims.

"I certainly see it in the cancer patients, and I certainly see it in many of the folks that were victimized in a wide variety of ways by the flood. … At some point, there is a realization that you can't go back. It doesn't mean that the future can't be good in its own way, but part of the grieving is realizing that it will never be the same."

Grief does not make geographical distinctions. Natural disasters do not check license plates. The loss that our brothers and sisters still feel in Oklahoma following those deadly tornadoes is much like what our brothers and sisters are experiencing today in Arizona, following the deaths of 19 courageous young firefighters. How can you begin to replace those lives?

Dr. Tansey said, “As is often the case with stress disorders, there is a certain segment of the population that, as you get further out from the traumatic event, don’t seem to make a full recovery from it. Those are the ones that turn into longer chronic conditions. They need some kind of psychiatric care to get it turned around.”

They will also need our help long after the cameras are gone. Their loss is our loss. From Boston to Yarnell, New Orleans to Joplin, we are all connected. All who have watched their homes be engulfed by water during a flood or burn like torches in raging wildfires share a feeling of helplessness and shock. How do you rebuild a life? Where do you begin? The disarray is beyond comprehension.

This fire season in the West, some will ask, "Every year, it seems the West is on fire. Why don't those people simply move out of these fire-prone areas?" The question overlooks the obvious. These houses are people's homes and the places where they’re rooted. Would we want to be told where to live? I have yet to locate a region of the country that is safe from natural disasters.

Back in Iowa, Cedar Rapids community activist Linda Seger and her husband Gary rebuilt their flood damaged home 20 months later. They were glad to leave the FEMA trailer behind.

Linda told me, “The joy of pulling into the driveway and being able to walk inside the house and know we once again live here is hard to put into words. We appreciate even the little things that are a part of having a home."

Stephen J. Lyons is a contributor to Writers on the Range, an op-ed syndicate of High Country News. He is the author of three books, most recently, The 1,000-Year Flood: Destruction, Loss, Rescue, and Redemption Along the Mississippi River.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.

Toby Thaler
Toby Thaler
Jul 16, 2013 02:15 PM
"These houses are people's homes and the places where they’re rooted." True enough, but it's also true that public policy decisions have been made to facilitate these people putting roots down in hazardous locations. In some places, the taxpayers pay repeatedly to allow people to stay in flood plains, and we all pay when local governments permit subdivisions in the WUI. The problem will only get worse with global warming driven climate change--more severe floods and fires.

Developer driven local governments who make decisions that put people at high risk should be held accountable, not the homeowners. If it takes imposition of "no insurance" or "no utilities" to accomplish sensible growth management, then so be it.

"Would we want to be told where to live?" We already do! It's called zoning, public ownership of land, conservation easements, lack of subsidies, etc. It's time to say "Enough!" to public policies that encourage putting and keeping peoples' homes in high risk locations. The should be bought out and future insurance and other government subsidies (like utilities) forever removed from floodplains and most WUI. Unless you want to self insure and provide your own utilities; in that case, go for it.
Malcolm McMichael
Malcolm McMichael
Jul 16, 2013 02:24 PM
#toby. The private insurance industry already refuses to offer flood (sudden external intrusion) coverage in much of the nation. (This is why it matters so much whether your roof blew off or the flood surge came first in a hurricane). The refusal by insurance companies to offer coverage is why we have subsidized Federal public flood programs now.

I am willing to bet we'll see a similar trend re wildfire soon enough. The insurance industry must have gotten creamed in Colo. Springs that last two seasons. They'll be looking to change the terms of coverage if they haven't already.
Eleanor Osgood
Eleanor Osgood
Jul 16, 2013 03:07 PM
I live in fire prone Southern California. I agree with the comments of Toby Thaler regarding the costly and dangerous results of "...Developer driven local governments..." making poor public policies decisions. Maybe one way to create more caution on the part of the developer would be to see all future risks related to the siting of a development transferred to developer(s)and to those people who decide to live there. Perhaps then developers would think twice before creating housing in potentially hazardous fault, flood or fire zones. As thing are now they can just take their profits and run; home owners just go to FEMA.
Kris Loman
Kris Loman
Jul 16, 2013 04:53 PM
I share the frustration of taxpayers, but also see the human side. I'm from the Greensburg KS area, where that huge tornado took out the entire town. It was a dying farm town to begin with, and it will probably never recover from the disaster. Many people never moved back, and there are still few homes rebuilt. Pioneer stock has always been able to roll with the punches, and people got on with life, but the cultural change was drastic. The ironic part was all these white conservatives taking government aid, when they had been screaming from the rooftops about all the money going to New Orleans after Katrina. And they would never refuse a farm subsidy.

As for developers, you cannot legally transfer risk for future disasters to them. They invest, make their money, and walk away clean. Even with strong zoning, it is extremely hard to deny them development rights. The laws have been set up so that they can ask for special agreements with the local government and can promise the moon. If the govt. signs off because they salivate over future dollars, it's a done deal. Development is like crack cocaine, they always need the next hit. The well being of the community is never truly a high priority.
Stephen Koenigsberg
Stephen Koenigsberg
Jul 16, 2013 05:48 PM
Maybe the government should warn homebuyers similar to what is on a pack of cigarettes. "The Forest Service has determined that the home you are considering has a 75% chance of perishing in a fire over the next 5 years." Do you think that could be done?