“Man” Versus “Nature?” The Politics of the Iowa Floods

Having served my hours on the sandbag lines, I am perhaps entitled to say a thing or two about the Iowa and Midwestern floods of 2008 – the ones that displaced 24,000 people from their homes in Cedar Rapids and thousands more in towns like Waterloo and Anamosa and which have been more recently wreaking havoc along the Mississippi Valley.  


There is a flood narrative going around Iowa newspapers, television stations, homes and churches and so on.  It says that the floods were a conflict between humanity (some old-timers still say “Man”) and “Nature” – an epic battle that had nothing to do with mere “politics.”


It points proudly to the fact that Iowans put “politics “– defined largely as partisan division between Republicans and Democrats – aside to “pull together” behind the common struggle with the “natural disaster” imposed by the raging floodwaters of the Cedar, Iowa, Wapsipincon, and other rivers [1].


This is a flawed and authoritarian storyline containing some real kernels of truth.


It is true that “nature” dealt Iowa a tough hand with large-scale rain following a winter of record snowfalls that had yet to be absorbed before the deluges of June came.


 It is true, of course, that people put ideological and partisan (and other: cultural, personal, racial, ethnic and the like) differences aside when they joined their labor power to build (and now dismantle) sandbag fortifications, to move people and their goods to higher ground, and to clean up flood-ravaged homes and facilities. No doubt about it.


It is also true that the division between Democrat and Republican does not seem terribly relevant to the floods. 


But the deeper and darker reality is that these floods had politics – deeply understood – written all over them.  Iowa was not simply assaulted by “Nature.” The Midwestern floods of 2008, like Hurricane Katrina, are a societal and hence political (richly bipartisan, by the way) failure as well as a “natural disaster.” Like Katrina, they were preceded by a long-gathering storm of misguided practices, policies and priorities.


There’s the politics of anthropogenic climate change – the excessive human-generated carbon emissions that have heated the planet’s temperature in ways that have increased storm activity and intensity and reduced the earth’s capacity to absorb the rising rainfall that results. Higher atmospheric pressure increase levels of water vapor. Climate experts have been talking about this for many years. Their warnings have been suppressed and marginalized until (possibly) too late by dominant corporate political and media authorities – by the politics of state-capitalist thought control and elite-managed democracy.


There’s the politics of class and geography. I’m talking about who lives on low ground and who lives on high ground. Go to any Iowa town along the Mississippi and do a real estate pricing and socioeconomic status comparison of the people who live in high-flood-risk areas and who resides up on the hills and you will see that the rich and powerful tend to live high and dry while the poor are much more vulnerable to the rolling wrath of Big Muddy.


There’s the politics of war and empire.  Highly working-class Iowa has lost more soldiers in Iraq per capita than any other American state, reflecting the fact that many of its National Guard reserves have been deployed in the illegal and unnecessary occupation of Mesopotamia.  We certainly could have used some of those reserves back in the imperial “homeland” in the days and weeks preceding and following the floods.


There’s the politics of urban development and sprawl– the profit- and automobile-driven corporate and real estate project of paving over ever more land that previously absorbed water, preventing it from running off to streams and rivers.


There’s the politics of municipal and county autonomy and spoils, meaning that Iowa and other Midwestern states lack a uniform and integrated flood risk management system – something that pits towns, counties, and rural districts against each other in the race to build the biggest and most effective levees, driving up water pressure downstream.


There’s the politics of toxic chemicals, widely used over and against environmentalist warnings in U.S. industry and agriculture. Such chemicals have left a fetid stew of poisonous waste across flood-damaged areas in water-ravaged towns and fields across the Midwest.


Last but not least, there’s the politics of agricultural profit and federal farm subsidy. Iowa plants an enormous, globally unmatched amount of corn and soybeans, crops that demand a massive amount of water for high yields.  That water has to be drained quickly. 


To reduce the water running into rivers and streams, the river-rich state of Iowa needs more rural landscape containing clover, alfalfa, wetlands, and other long-term rotation crops. The leading dominant policy and profit incentives – the Ethanol boom included – right now are pushing farmers in the wrong direction: fence-post to fence-post corn and soybean cultivation. 


Now that the floods of 2008 have swept away the rich top soil on many low-lying farms, the federal government should buy up inundated lands and turn them into permanent wetlands.  It should refuse to repair many ruined levees, many of which just up the flood ante in an age of rising water. We need to value long-term sustainability and rational regional planning over the short-sighted priorities of private profit and local privilege.  We’re all in this together – ask the displaced working people of Cedar Rapids.


Paul Street is a writer and author in Iowa City, IA.  His next book is Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (order at http://www.paradigmpublishers.com/Books/BookDetail.aspx?productID=186987) Paul can be reached at [email protected].




1. It is not widely known that Iowa is a very watery state.  Fully bordered by water both west (the Missouri River) and east (the Mississippi), it is home to nine river basins.

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