What Emergency Managers Can Learn From the Midwest Historic Flooding

Picture of Mary Kate McGrath By Mary Kate McGrath


farm In the early Spring of 2019, snowmelt from the “bomb cyclone” and heavy rainfall resulted in record flooding to the midwest region of the United States. As with many climate-change related disasters, emergency managers can learn from the midwest historic flooding and how to protect residents amid unprecedented destruction. 

According to the New York Times, hundreds of miles levees were overwhelmed by the floods, leaving the infrastructure full of holes and raising new questions about flood control. The levee breaks in Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri, and the surrounding area has left states with little protection heading into what is already an unprecedented flood season. Many residents in the region live and work in the agricultural industry, raising new concerns about how viable their homes and livelihoods will be after the disaster.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicts that the flooding will worsen throughout the central United States into May. Officials from the organization warn over 200 million people in 25 states will be at risk, with a particular concentration along the Missouri, Mississippi, and Red River of the North. The floods will result in waterlogged structures and roads, as well as significant evacuations for residents across the region. 

The record floods have killed three people and caused $3 billion dollars in damage thus far. Damage to farmland is hitting agriculture workers and ranchers during a time that industry workers already face falling incomes, increasing bankruptcies, and are burdened by fallout from controversial trade policies. Native American reservations were also hit particularly hard. In South Dakota, extreme weather and unnavigable roads left residents on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation stranded for weeks with limited food and water, as reported by the New York Times.

The current infrastructure and insurance policies in the midwest are proving fallible, and communities across the central region of the United States will be devastated by the floods. There are lessons to be learned from the new normal, and the disaster in the midwestern states are an opportunity for local administrators and safety managers to look toward keeping residents safe in the future.

Invest In Emergency Planning & Preparedness

The primary reason the floods in the midwest have proven so catastrophic is that the area was not prepared for an emergency of this nature. The disaster occurred both on the structural level, with aging levees unable to hold up to the scale of the flooding, and administrative, where lack of preparedness left many residents without critical aid. Failing infrastructure in the form of crumbling barriers or insufficient floodplains are the most pressing issue for the area, but administrative issues and miscalculations have hindered emergency response as well. 

The levees on prairie land in the midwest are intended to safeguard crops and surrounding town against floods, and the agricultural industry depends on this infrastructure to maintain operations. However, the levees are old and often left unreplaced or regulated. These barriers were also not built to manage the rising water levels, and since local agencies are in charge of management, can create a financial strain on the community. According to the New York Times, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the levees a D-grade and recommended over $80 billion in investment over the next decade. Given the high cost of disaster response and recovery for the region, bolstering preventative measures proves the better financial decision moving forward. 

Maps that mislead residents, especially those working in agriculture, are another issue. Flood risk is often based on outdated maps that don’t account for climate change. Many residents were relying on maps that tied risk to a “100-year floodplain” that gave certain areas a 1% chance of flooding, a number that proved unrealistic, as reported by Curbed. This means that flooding often occurs outside of these plains, which leaves residents unprepared and without the proper insurance for the type of property damage.

Emergency Managers should be committed to providing residents with up-to-date risk information, which will allow them to better manage their health and safety. This information will also to protect the continuity of the community by empowering residents to invest in insurance and safeguard their land in case of a flood.

Communication Lessons From The Midwestern Floods

Communication is essential during any disaster, but the nature of these floods made it particularly essential. The region struggled with communication, leaving areas unevacuated amid floods and residents unable to reach first response teams during the emergency. The impact on Native American Reservations has been a particular source of criticism, since response was delayed for several weeks. A key issue was the inability for these residents to contact state officials and communicate the need for help. 

Internal communication is important during an emergency as well, otherwise response efforts can be chaotic, disjointed, or leave teams unable to help the most vulnerable people, such as those living on a reservation in South Dakota. Establishing a way for internal teams to communicate rapidly can help to better coordinate response. For example, once the state was made aware of the situation on Pine Ridge Reservation, a team with ATVs, boat rescue, and a small group of National Guard soldiers to distribute drinking water were deployed, showing how coordination is key for setting up effective emergency response interdepartmentally.

Evacuation procedures are especially critical during a developing disaster. An infographic created by the New York Times shows that the water levels in the midwest rose drastically over a period of just a few days. During an emergency evacuation, effective and speedy communication is essential for reaching residents before the flooding reaches their home. Make sure that residents impacted by a disaster, such as those living along river basins or in floodplains, are encouraged to sign up for alerts.  A mass notification system with a full range capability can help emergency managers better reach the community, allowing residents to use a text to opt-in option

Managing safety for vulnerable residents, such as people with disabilities or individuals struggling with homelessness, is an essential part of flood response. Ahead of a disaster, emergency managers should compile community information to a vulnerable needs registry. If kept up-to-date and accessible, it will allow first responders to identify residents who most need assistance amid evacuations or other flood safety efforts.

Must-Have Guide: 7 Best Practices to Move Your Vulnerable Population Registry  Online

The flooding in the midwest will impact the region for years to come, and while many areas will continue to struggle to meet the demand of the new-normal, there are key lessons that emergency managers can use. Investing in infrastructure and preparedness, facilitating communication, and making sure that vulnerable communities have the resources needed will help manage safety for all, especially in unexpected periods of disaster. 

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Mary Kate McGrath

Written by Mary Kate McGrath

Mary Kate is a content specialist and social media manager for the Rave Mobile Safety team. She writes about public safety for the state & local and education spheres.


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