- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 18, 2006

ST. LOUIS (AP) — Concentrated development in flood-prone parts of Missouri, California and other states has significantly raised the risk of New Orleans-style flooding, as people snap up new homes even in areas recently deluged, researchers said yesterday.

Since a 1993 flood in St. Louis, when the Mississippi River lapped at the steps of the Gateway Arch, more than 14,000 acres of flood plain have been developed. That has reduced the region’s ability to store water during floods and potentially put more people in harm’s way, said Adolphus Busch IV, chairman of the Great Rivers Habitat Alliance.

Similar development has occurred around Dallas; Kansas City, Mo.; Los Angeles; Omaha, Neb.; and Sacramento, Calif., said Gerald Galloway, a professor of engineering at the University of Maryland.

“The half-life of the memory of a flood is very short. You can already hear it in Washington, D.C.: ‘New Orleans where?’” Mr. Galloway said.

The research was presented yesterday at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

In California, development in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, where flood-control efforts first started in the mid-1800s, represents a major risk, said Jeffrey Mount, a professor of geology at the University of California at Davis.

“We are reinventing [Hurricane] Katrina all over again,” Mr. Mount said.

He estimates a 2-in-3 chance over the next 50 years of a catastrophic levee failure in the massive delta region east of San Francisco. Even a moderate flood could breach the delta’s levee system, Mr. Mount said.

“In California, we know that we have two kinds of levees: Those that have failed and those that will fail,” Mr. Mount said.

Efforts to guard against floods don’t automatically reduce risks, said Nicholas Pinter, a professor of geology at Southern Illinois University.

Mr. Pinter said as much as 85 percent of the Mississippi in St. Louis is confined behind levees, which have raised flood levels 10 feet to 12 feet higher than they were a century ago. That parallels the situation in New Orleans, which suffered catastrophic flooding in August when levees failed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Bolstering levees may lure more people onto flood plains, Mr. Mount said. In California, the modest investment required to shore up a levee protecting farmland can result in a dramatic increase in the value of that land, he said. That in turn increases the likelihood a farmer will sell out to developers, ushering in the construction of houses on what had been flood plain.

“You actually spur development. It’s a self-fulfilling process,” Mr. Mount said.

In the St. Louis area, there has been an estimated $2.2 billion in new construction on land that was under water in the 1993 flood, Mr. Pinter said.

Norbert Schwartz, director of the mitigation division of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Chicago office, did not dispute that there has been a “substantial” amount of construction on lands abutting levees across the United States.

But he said the national flood-insurance program saves $100 billion in potential flood costs each year.

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