Commentary: Let nature choose the winners, losers

The recent decision by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to blast open a Mississippi River levee in southeast Missouri in order to prevent the flooding of the town of Cairo, Ill., raises two related but very different issues — one practical, the other philosophical.

The first is the material value of what was saved by the action against the value of what was lost.

The second concerns the right and the competence of any bureaucratic agency to render such a verdict — to choose, in effect, who wins and who loses.

Cairo, it seems, was spared what might have been a terminal inundation. At the same time, a 15-foot-deep torrent released by the levee’s breach poured over 130,000 acres of Missouri farmland, destroying 100 or more houses as well as farm buildings and equipment, exterminating wildlife, drowning cemeteries and creating a filthy inland sea unlikely to recede for two months or longer.

It’s thought that insurance will at least partly cover the lost crops, but there’s uncertainty whether structures will qualify, since insurers may argue the event was a man-made, not a natural, flood.

What’s more, in a time of severe world food shortages and the resulting strong grain market, it’s hard to put a price on the nearly multimillion-bushel harvest those ruined acres could have produced.

Agricultural enterprises built by families over two and three generations have been simply swept away.

And there’s no knowing when, if ever, those acres will be arable again. In 1973, flying east toward St. Louis, I passed over the flooded Missouri and Mississippi rivers, spread across enormous flats between the bluffs that bounded their valleys.

For several years afterward, driving Interstate 70 in that direction, I saw those same areas, which had once been rich fields, transformed into what remained, only weedy wastelands under the sand and wreckage the floods had deposited.

And what of Cairo? I’ve never been there, but by every account I’ve found it is an all but moribund town with little economic activity, inhabited by 2,800 souls, down from more than 12,000 in 1950 and still declining.

Had their town been devastated, I’m sure that for the people whose homes are there, or who have long association and tender memories of the place, their grief would have been no less painful than that of the farming families who have lost their homes and their livelihoods.

But who gets to decide between survivors and victims?

In the days of the Roman gladiatorial games, the crowd had a vote by its shouts and gestures. Thumbs up or thumbs down. Let the defeated warrior live, or dispatch him with a sword blow.

That’s not an especially attractive system. But it strikes me as being not a whole lot different from letting military engineers or a little group of gentlemen in judicial robes make the call.

In this case, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Supreme Court had the only votes.

Living as a close neighbor to a great river can have some advantages, but also major risks. Kansas City learned that in 1951 when the swollen Kaw and Missouri rivers wounded our town in a way never to be forgotten.

Floods are not man-made. They are the work of an indifferent nature. Which leads to the philosophical question: Doesn’t it then make a certain sense to let nature decide who wins and who takes the losses?

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