As mayors of cities along the Mississippi River, the Hurricane Sandy devastation hit home for us. Our “coasts” have many of the same vulnerabilities. In fact, within the past 400 days, cities and towns up and down the Mississippi have experienced record floods, the worst drought in 50 years and Hurricane Isaac. We know all too well the hardship your region now faces as the struggle to clean up and rebuild begins.
We can’t predict or prevent natural disasters; but we know with certainty that they will happen. And we know that this era of extreme “climatic violence” is our new reality. Accepting this will help us all learn from these tragedies so our nation can be better prepared for the next weather event. Only in this way will we have more success at protecting and rebuilding our lives and economy.
Finding solutions will be difficult. All river and coastal communities encounter tough questions and decisions about how they interact with bodies of water, especially in flood-prone areas, such as:
· Do we restrict development to limit exposure and losses?
· How do we balance job and economic growth with safety?
· Is there a middle ground that allows for the sustainability and vitality of both the economic and natural systems?
Unfortunately, the answers are not clear. After all, developing in flood plains even with flood protection measures in place can have unforeseen, severe consequences. Man-made infrastructure can inhibit the natural ebb and flow of water bodies necessary to keep aquatic ecosystems healthy and oftentimes replace more cost-effective natural flood buffers.
But ignoring the difficult questions is not an option anymore. Instead, we should embrace the new reality and learn lessons from each other. For those of us who represent cities and towns that share the largest navigable river in the world, we have started focusing on three areas as keys to lessening the impact of future natural disasters:
1. Promote sustainable urban planning. Urban centers are growing, putting additional pressure on using riverfront land. At the same time, we are entering a phase in which federal resources available for infrastructure investment is shrinking, leaving urban systems stagnant or deteriorating. These two realities are forcing us to look at opportunities for advanced, sustainable planning. This planning can design alternatives to the crumbling infrastructures relied upon in the past, while still allowing prospective developers to build sustainably and safely.
2. Collaborate regionally. Along the Mississippi River, mayors are responding to these emerging threats by engaging in a new and more sophisticated level of regional collaboration. No longer are we viewing our river communities as isolated, independent areas. Instead, we are starting to treat the whole river as one united living environmental system and economic linchpin. The vehicle for doing so is the recently formed Mississippi River Cities & Towns Initiative, an unprecedented effort that includes mayors on all 2,500 miles of the Mississippi River, from Minnesota to Louisiana. Coastal cities and town have similar efforts.
3. Develop supportive disaster prevention policies. We are focused on working with the federal government to ensure appropriate and effective measures are in place. For instance, the re-establishment of federal funding mechanisms, such as the Federal Pre-Disaster Mitigation Program (PDM), is critical to enable us to collaborate and move forward. PDM provided over $70 million in pre-disaster planning and mitigation to 39 states and territories in 2011, saving money by investing in disaster preparation. Every $1 spent on disaster mitigation yielded $4 in benefits, according to the Multi-Hazard Mitigation Council. Yet, funding for this valuable program was eliminated in the upcoming year’s budget.
How preparedness gets defined is also important to preparing the nation for future disasters. Currently, the Department of Homeland Security’s preparedness approach focuses solely on grant consolidation under the catch-all “readiness” category and ignores disaster mitigation. Also, funding for grant programs that deal with preparation for floods and other natural disasters needs to remain separate since these distinct events require individualized approaches and differ from preventing damage caused by terrorist attacks.
After years of learning hard lessons, we know we must be diligent in working cohesively and purposefully. We are more than a river. We are an interconnected lifeline that touches lives well beyond the cities and towns on the Mississippi’s banks.
We also recognize that solutions need to be bigger than one river. That’s why we stand ready to work with stakeholders toward building a new approach that will allow cities along our most treasured assets — our rivers, bays and oceans — to survive both man and Mother Nature and thrive.
Mayors Dave Kleis of St. Cloud, Minn.; Francis Slay of St. Louis, Mo.; Jo Anne Smiley of Clarksville, Mo.; Tyrone Coleman of Cairo, Ill.; Dickie Kennemore of Osceola, Ark.; AC Wharton of Memphis, Tenn.; Paul Winfield of Vicksburg, Miss.; Larry Brown of Natchez, Miss. and Melvin L. “Kip” Holden of Baton Rouge, La. are members of the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative, funded by the Walton Family Foundation and a project of the Northeast-Midwest Institute, a Washington-based regional policy research center.