THE FLOODWATERS hadn’t receded before we saw our state dividing into two camps over what lessons, if any, we should take away from the deluge and the floods. And the divisions, I fear, are hardening by the day.
From the one camp comes the idea that it’s absurd to blame government for any failures in a 1,000-year flood; from the other comes the idea that everything would have been just fine if we had a government that was willing to do its job.
I suspect these divisions track closely with preconceived notions — liberals blaming the government, conservatives blaming liberals for blaming anything other than nature. In fact, I can’t help wondering if people would respond the same way if our state were controlled by Democrats instead of Republicans — or if we would see massive role reversal.
Actually, there’s a test for that: Anyone who is convinced that the Democratically controlled city of Columbia was definitely to blame for the water problems but that the Republican-controlled state of South Carolina bears no blame for roads, bridges and dam breaks (or vice-versa) is being a partisan rather than a thinker. That person’s opinions should be discounted immediately.
Or maybe everyone’s should be, at least for the time being.
The fact is we do not yet know which is the case — or which is closer to the case; the truth likely is somewhere in between. So what we need to do is withhold judgment until we know better. And we need to be willing to accept what that better knowledge tells us, even if it doesn’t comport with our preconceived notions.
In fact, that would be a smart way of doing things regardless of what those things are.
What we need to concentrate on right now is figuring out, as best as we can, why dams breached and houses and apartments and businesses were flooded and streets and bridges gave way and water lines burst. Was it simply because of all the rain, or could more stringent safety requirements and tougher zoning requirements and building codes and newer roads and bridges and pipes have made a difference?
A good place to start looking for the answer might be to compare how roads, bridges, dams and water lines in good repair fared compared to those that had been identified as being in bad shape. Another might be to compare how homes that were elevated fared compared to similarly situated homes that were not, or whether buildings that were just outside of a flood zone actually did come out better, as you would expect, than those just inside the zone.
A good question to ask in assessing blame might be this: Would it have been reasonable a month ago to expect more — from dam owners and state government and the city of Columbia? For example, we should have expected more from an owner who had been notified by DHEC that his dam needed repairs. I’m not sure we should have expected the city to fortify the Columbia Canal.
A good question to ask in setting a post-recovery course might be this: What would be reasonable to require going forward? As in: Would it be reasonable to prohibit building or rebuilding in the areas where the floodwaters rose 8 feet? Or 2 feet? Would it be reasonable to require dam owners to return Gills Creek to its natural flow?
We also might want to consider ocean temperatures — not to decide whether human beings are responsible for rising temperatures or whether those trends will continue indefinitely, but to help us make smarter decisions.
In Charleston Harbor, The Post and Courier reports, the sea level has risen by 3 inches since Hurricane Hugo in 1989 — and a foot since a metal pipe was sunk into the harbor in 1921 to serve as a tidal gauge. The paper illustrated how that relates to every piece of land that is in or near a flood zone, recounting the story of a meteorologist who studied New York’s history of torrential rains and floods and plugged the data into climate models — the ones that predict such things as the 24-inch rainfall on Columbia that no one believed would come. The result was that what had been classified as a “500-year flood” for New York was now predicted to occur every 24 years.
This suggests that some places we have thought of as safe to build in aren’t any more — and that we might want to look carefully at our actual experience rather than just at FEMA maps when we decide what can be built where, and what sort of standards we should require.
We can make smart decisions about how to rebuild our community and our state, or we can make knee-jerk political decisions.
The way to make knee-jerk decisions is to remain locked inside our ideological huts, assuming we already know the answers to all the important questions. The way to make smart decisions is to actually ask the questions that will help us assess cause and effect, and let the answers guide our decisions.
Ms. Scoppe can be reached
or at (803) 771-8571.