When the Potomac Floods, Turn Off the Weather Channel and Take a First-hand Look
Floods can be deadly serious, but they can also give us insights into our river and ourselves.
A car with Virginia plates pulled into the Great Falls parking lot and a woman rolled down the rear window.
“Excuse me,” she called out in a soft accent. “Do you know if there’s anything here to see?”
It was the day after heavy rains hit our area, and I had been checking out the flooded river. I was wet and muddy, but still exhilarated after feeling the power of water crashing against rocks and seeing the flotillas of tree trunks bobbing down the swift current.
I started telling the woman all of this, but stopped short when I got a good view of the car’s occupants: two sleekly dressed and coiffed couples, looking as if they could be on their way to a GOP fundraiser. I quickly wound up my spiel: “And then there’s always the visitor’s center.”
I have nothing against dressing nicely. But when the river floods, it’s time to put on old boots and hats and get nose-to-nose with nature. This is when our river — always a teacher — imparts its most passionate lessons.
Surprisingly, though, few people pay much attention to these lessons, and there’s a serious side to this.
It has to do with how we make decisions on reducing flood risks, the subject of a recent get-together held by the American Water Resources Association. Fittingly, we met in that citadel of decision making, the Cannon Office Building on Capitol Hill, its endless corridors lined with heavy doors flanked by American flags.
As the workshop experts described it, decision making on rivers and flood protection is often inspired by the same mix of ideology, wishful thinking and hubris that brings us financial crises and climate change denial.
For example, engineer Mark H. Houck is alarmed at what he sees as a soaring risk from floods right here in Montgomery County and neighboring jurisdictions. The big danger, said this professor at George Mason University, is our “unbelievable increase in population,” our long life spans, our wealth and the “expensive stuff we buy.” So when a flood comes, costs will be correspondingly high, he said.
The buyers of all this expensive stuff are successful people, masters of their human environment. They rarely have much experience with their natural environment.
So people need reminders, said Houck, and he had a modest proposal. For a start, put high water marks on visible places, like bridges, telephone poles and buildings. These marks would tell people not merely what could happen ― the stuff of commissions and reports ― but what has actually happened already.
But even faced with empirical facts, people tend to look the other way.
“Decision makers don’t really want to know about risk exposure, because then they would have to do something about it,” said Gerald E. Galloway, an engineering professor at the University Maryland and former head of the task force on the Great Mississippi Flood of 1993.
“How can you get politicians to think out 50 years when their gut tells them to take care of their next election in five years?”
A few days after the workshop, the flood waters had receded. I went to Carderock to find what new messages the river had left. Hiking upstream, I saw backwaters filled with fresh loads of trash. Piles of logs and more trash littered the shore.
Then, nearing , I first caught the smell and then the sight of something out of The Godfather. Instead of a horse’s head on the bedpost, the river had deposited a whole cow, its dark brown back covered with vultures. Was the river taking its cue from Don Vito, and giving us some kind of warning?
A little ways further I found something else. On a gently sloping section of riverbank, the receding waters had left a fertile layer of silt. Through the silt, Virginia bluebells were sending forth their first shoots of the year, some already bursting with tiny flowers.
When the river rearranges things, there are winners as well as losers.