floods – mammoth // building nothing out of something


The next week or two will be dedicated to floods.

This may be entirely obvious, but I think it is worth beginning by noting that floods are not good, and floods are not fun.  We’re not talking about floods because we enjoy flooding.  Floods are, however, a constant — as we are reminded by the current Mississippi floods, which will be remembered by history along with the floods of 1927, 1983, and 1993 as one of the Great Mississippi Floods.  Despite their constancy, floods are often (like the infrastructures we build to control them) out of sight and out of mind.  The aim of our posting over the next week or two, in so far as it has a single aim, will be simply to remember, to see, to be aware of floods.

That said, there are a couple of themes I expect to return to.  (The posts in this series are, for the most part, as yet unwritten, so I also expect to find some unexpected themes.)  Both of these, conveniently, can be found in nascent form in Alexis Madrigal’s recent and excellent “explainer” on the current Mississippi floods at the Atlantic Online.

First, unlike (for instance) the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, which preceded (and instigated) the Flood Control Act of 1928 and the subsequent fortification of the Mississippi, both the current Mississippi floods and most contemporary floods elsewhere are not natural disasters, but infra-natural disasters.  That is, the natural systems which produce floods are now so thoroughly intertwined with infrastructural systems that it is inappropriate to speak of them separately, or at least to speak of them without acknowledging the role of infrastructures in directing, mitigating, exaggerating, and otherwise affecting the paths of floodwaters.  (This is particularly true now that the issue of flooding is so tied to the issue of climate change, the most geographically comprehensive way that humans have altered and are altering our environment.  Flood protection infrastructures can also be said to be climate defense systems.)

Madrigal drives home this point in the introduction to his piece:

“What is the Mississippi River? It’s not actually a silly question. The Mississippi no longer fits the definition a river as “a natural watercourse flowing towards an ocean, a lake, a sea, or another river.” Rather, the waterway has been shaped in many ways, big and small, to suit human needs. While it maybe not be tamed, it’s far from wild — and understanding the floods that are expected to crest in Louisiana soon means understanding dams, levees, and control structures as much as rain, climate, and geography. From almost the moment in the early 18th century when the French started to build New Orleans, settlers built levees, and in so doing, entered into a complex geoclimactic relationship with about 41 percent of the United States.”

Second, as this is a blog about spatial design, we are particularly interested in how designers react to flood conditions.  Whether at an urban, regional, or site scale, there is one particular principle that is key to design for floods, which, again, Madrigal touches on:

“Under flood conditions, the best way to take pressure off a place downstream is to let water flow upstream.”

Though a simple statement — and one that flood engineers have always been aware of the import of, as flood control plans have always involved making choices about where to let rivers overflow their banks and where to maintain barriers — there has been an important shift in the way that this statement guides design for floods, as the orthodoxy of storm-water management is gradually moving away from striving to move water quickly and towards slowing the movement of water as much as possible.

As author Scott Huler notes in his tour of typical American infrastructures, On the Grid, this shift “involves making a complete about-face from traditional practices.  Instead of getting water to go somewhere else, engineers now do everything they can to keep the water where it is”. In place of a “simple mechanical process of nuisance removal”, he says, “stormwater infrastructure has become a biological process of resource management”.  Under flood conditions, of course, the primary locus of concern shifts from management stormwater as a resource to mitigating the damage caused by extreme excesses of water — but the transition that Huler identifies from hard, fast, mechanical infrastructures towards soft, slow, biological infrastructures is indeed underway, to at least some degree, for both general stormwater and flood infrastructures, and will be a repeated theme of some of the design proposals we hope to look at.

[Thanks to Tim Maly for the link to Alexis Madrigal’s post.  The image at the top of the post is a false-color satellite photograph, taken on 11 May, of the Morganza Spillway, which lies between the Mississippi (curving to the east on the right side of the image) and the Atchafalaya (on the western side).  “The floodway, designed to reduce water levels in the Mississippi during emergencies, was last open from April 19 to June 13, 1973, the only time it has ever been opened.”  I expect to discuss the Morganza further.]

9 Responses to “floods”

  1. faslanyc says:

    I’m interested to see how this study goes, especially how we might define and rethink infrastructures and failure/fracture-critical situations given the statement that the flood isn’t a natural disaster but an infrastructural one. I’m not sure of that yet. I think there is some room here to bring up some good questions. Namely, the infrastructural system that is the Mississippi is working as it was intended to (as Alexis points out), albeit at great but somewhat anticipated cost, and also with big rewards. The argument can be made that the original intention (move water out of there) was wrong, but this isn’t as cut and dried as it seems- there were major floods before the infrastructure was in place (1927 as you note, and also a major flood in 1874).

    One thing should be noted about Madrigal’s piece- he states midway through that the Mississippi silts up and that this problem has been exacerbated by agricultural practices. That is a good point, albeit not totally true. In fact the river is carrying a lot less sediment than it was before ’27 (and the rise of industrial agriculture) because of all of the tributary dams. This is one of the principal reasons that the delta is subsiding faster than it is being constructed. The Mississippi is no longer the land-making machine that is once was (Richard Campanella’s phrase, which I love).

    looking forward to it.

    • rholmes says:

      I was not familiar with Campanella’s phrase, but now that I am, I love it too. That function as a “land making machine” will be making a return at some point in this feature (assuming I get that far) — I’ve got a couple relevant articles.

      And hopefully I was clear about this, but the point is not that flooding is an exclusively infrastructural condition, but that it is a hybrid event, with natural and infrastructural causes and effects “so thoroughly intertwined as to be inseparable”. I think we would agree that it’s easy to over-react to the problems of hard flood control infrastructures and consequently dismiss their value (which is immense). Treating them as cut-and-dried “bad” is simplistic to the point of absurdity. (The Huler quote may have leaned in that direction more than I would like on reflection.) I’d refer back to one of our first posts, on Dutch flood control:

      “Landrieu explains that the Dutch system is superior both in its integration into the landscape — as mentioned above, parks and open spaces serve as flood reservoirs, while the more modern portions of the Dykeworks are designed to allow the mixing of fresh and salt water that sustains fragile estuary habitat — and sheer weight of structure dedicated to firming the line between sea and land. Perhaps this seems slightly paradoxical, as this implies at once acknowledgement of the necessity of accepting the ambiguity of the relationship between land and water at the coast (which is not so much a line as an average drawn from unstable data points) and a far more serious effort at crystallizing that line through the construction of megastructures. But the flexibility to hold these two contradictory stances in tension maybe exactly the flexiblity that the Army Corps of Engineers needs to develop. The Dutch example may even suggest that an architecture of flexible insertions that reprogram the radical flux of natural systems and an architecture of mammoth bulwarks against that radical flux are not wholly incompatible.

      Perhaps the twentieth century Corps of Engineers and James Corner do not present so divergent a set of futures for infrastructure? Could the “integrated model of water management” that Landrieu refers to mean not the merely the adoption of a new paradigm that sees storm and water as a resource (or essential component of the whole), but the integration of that paradigm with the old paradigm of opposition between human and nature, creating a new perspective neither reductive nor naive?”

      So I wouldn’t necessarily make that argument that the original intention was wrong; but that we’re learning we need to hold that intention in balance with a renewed interest in working with the natural inclinations of floodwaters, and hoping that, in doing so, we might actually be better at keeping the floodwaters from doing damage. It kind of depends on whether you view the original intention as the means — moving water quickly away — or the aim — preventing damage. The question would be, is moving water quickly away always the best way to prevent damage, and it seems pretty clear that the answer is “no”. But — but — it’s certainly highly effective in doing so in many cases, so it’s hard to imagine that dealing with floods could transition to entirely soft infrastructures. (It’s relatively easy to imagine such a total, or at least extremely widespread, transition in the case of typical stormwater infrastructures.) One might even make the argument that, whatever we do, it will almost certainly involve layering further systems on top of the ones we have, or augmenting current systems at key points, not removing and re-orienting entirely to a new paradigm. (Whether I’d make that argument or not, I’m not sure. Certainly some of the proposals I want to look at are proposals for wholesale transformation. But there’s a thick layer of sediment between proposals and what happens.)

      • faslanyc says:

        hmm. yes, well I must sheepishly admit that some of my initial reaction was based upon reading your assertion of the current flood being an “infranatural disaster” as saying it was an “infrastructural disaster”. I would like to blame that on the fact that it was a somewhat hasty lunchtime-at-the-office reading.

        “Infra-natural” seems appropriate for the current situation, whereas the “infrastructural” more appropriately describes Katrina.

        We are in agreement that traditional flood control structures have immense value (and, of course, shortcomings).

        A further question: thinking about this idea of “infra-natural disasters”, I am thinking it is useful to define infrastructure a bit. It’s such a loose and pervasive and (awesome) term, and also relatively new in its conception. A while ago I jotted down the equation “infrastructure = policy + engineering”. I’m not totally committed to it, as I’m still trying to probe the nature and definition of the term myself, but I find it relevant related specifically to the Mississippi Flood of 2011. There, the engineering is working, but the policy (settlement allowed in the areas that were designated as flood zones for the Morganza) is suspect/failed. I like the fact that the equation foreground policy (which we might also think about as cultural practices- settle here, not there; build like this, not that) alongside engineering solutions, be they hard or soft.


        [btw, I love the picture of a thick layer of sediment between proposals and interventions…]

        • faslanyc says:

          no need to answer here by the way. i imagine you’re busily cooking up posts that dig into to these thoughts a bit, based on the recent output and your comment above.

  2. namhenderson says:

    Have you seen this 3 part feature in the Atlantic which discusses another sort of flooding?

    In this case the gradual flooding of Churches Ferry and surrounding farmlands by North Dakota’s Devils Lake.

    People debate whether it is simply the result of a unusual (perhaps GCC induced) wet cycyle or if it has a more directly human cause: namely the draining of wetlands for farmland

    most notably by reducing the landscape’s capacity to respond to the wet cycle. In a 1997 study, researchers from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service calculated that in the entire Devils Lake Basin, roughly 189,000 of the 400,000 acres of natural wetlands have been drained.

    1st part here
    2nd part here

    I must say the image of a slowly growing lake “eating” surrounding countryside seems right out of a Bldgblog post and it offers I think an opportunity to examine the issue of floods/flooding from another perspective.

    Finally, this passage
    Since 1994 the federal government has contributed more than $200 million to flooding-related infrastructure improvements in the Devils Lake area. Yet that money has gone largely to stopgap measures—a levee that is raised every few years, the purchase of Churchs Ferry—not, at least as locals see it, to long-term solutions. seems to indicate that infrastructure has a role to play but as you suggested in your post and as suggested by the first passage I quoted perhaps what is needed are more soft, slow, biological infrastructures (ie: wetlands) or some other more systemic infrastructural approach.

    • rholmes says:

      Thanks, Nam, a great link. (Unusual Flood Typologies III.) I had not seen that. The second piece is terrifically depressing — the man who can’t leave the town, even though the town has left him, watching the empty houses looted and then demolished.

  3. […] may recall that our posting on floods began with an image quite like the two above.  That first image was, like these two, a false-color satellite image of […]

  4. […] mammoth has argued for viewing this summer’s American floods “not [as] natural disasters, but [as] infra-natural […]