Tuesday, May 17, 2011


I have a piece up at Global Comment placing the Mississippi River floods within the context of the historical interactions between natural disasters and inequality. In part:

But why did people farm land that has historically flooded frequently? In the Midwest, people with a choice live above the flood plain. It is no coincidence that New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward is a largely African-American working class neighborhood; going all the way back to French and Spanish settlement of the city, wealthy people staked out higher ground to protect themselves from floodwaters. Those who can’t afford that protection are forced into the floodplains.

While some of the Missouri farmers who lost their land to the floods had worked it for generations, others had purchased farms more recently because they could afford this land. But that low cost came with significant long-term risk—the strong possibility of eventually losing your home to one of the great river’s periodic floods.

As the flood creeps into Louisiana, keep the relationship between landscape and power in mind. While we obviously need to save Baton Rouge and New Orleans from destruction, with the flooding of the Morganza Spillway, poor, rural Louisianans again have to suffer as their homes and farms flood. Says Merinda Leger of Stephenville, Louisiana, “Baton Rouge and New Orleans should be sending us help because we’re saving their butts. Y’all pray for us. You can at least do that.” Of course, the government could do more than pray. It could rethink the human relationship with the river to create a more equitable system for dealing with natural disasters.