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Photo: Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
According to the Christian Science Monitor, Valmeyer, Illinois, “was overwhelmed by a 100 year flood event in 1993. Townspeople wanted to stay together and decided to move their town 2 miles away and about 400 feet up.”

Floods are creating havoc in Europe right now, and even where I live, there are daily warnings about rising rivers. These and other dramatic weather events are being blamed on climate change. The problems will only increase, so what to do? For one thing, stop putting everything back the way it was before a flood.

I really admire the pragmatism of oft-flooded Vameyer, Illinois, which bit the bullet and moved the whole town.

Doug Struck has the story at the Christian Science Monitor. “It was 1:30 a.m. Dennis Knobloch stood at the top of a hillside cemetery – ‘that cemetery right there,’ he says, pointing over his shoulder. The water was coming. He and others from the town had worked for weeks, sandbagging levees, bulldozing rock and rubble, to try to hold the swelling river. They had failed. His radio crackled: The last levee was gone.

“ ‘It’s your call, mayor,’ the utility chief said. 

“Mr. Knobloch gave the order: Cut the power. He watched as the town below him – his town – flickered to dark, street by street, engulfed by the night and the Mississippi River.

“ ‘It was the hardest thing I did in my life,’ the former mayor says now. 

“Hundreds of small Midwest towns like Valmeyer were caught in the Great Flood of 1993. Unlike most of the others, the survival of Valmeyer – born anew, 2 miles away in a cornfield about 400 feet higher – is getting renewed interest 28 years later. …

“The planners look at the trends and say a pullback from vulnerable areas is inevitable. Call it ‘managed retreat.’ Last year in the United States, 1.7 million people had to flee natural disasters, and many found they could not return to their homes. The trends are expected to accelerate.

“ ‘Valmeyer remains the poster child of managed retreat in the U.S. up to the present,’ says Nicholas Pinter, a professor and associate director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at University of California, Davis.

“There have been dozens of complete or partial relocations of towns in American history, Dr. Pinter writes in the journal Issues in Science and Technology. Many were of Native American or Alaskan Inuit communities that were in vulnerable locations to start.

Other towns have repeatedly fled rivers – Niobrara, Nebraska, hauled its houses by horse and wagon away from flooding in the Missouri River in 1881 and moved again in 1971.

“But many proposed relocations did not succeed. Valmeyer did, with a few asterisks. 

“ ‘They made it happen. It wasn’t a bunch of ivory tower or Washington, D.C., experts,’ says Dr. Pinter.

“When the floods overtopped the levees in August 1993, half of Valmeyer, 30 miles south of St. Louis, was plunged under 14 feet of water. The other half on the sloped terrain left houses holding a foot to 8 feet of water. 

“The town had flooded three times before in the 1940s, cleaned up, and survived. This was different. The floodwaters stayed long enough to become fetid, the houses full of rotting debris and mold. A second crest hit a month later.

“ ‘The smell. I can’t describe the smell. I’ll never forget it,’ says Susie Dillenberger, who lived by one of the levees. She recalls barges bringing rock and rubble up the river to try to reinforce the barrier as the water rose. She worked with other volunteers to fill sandbags. She slept with her family in one room in case they had to flee suddenly. … They labored until a mandatory evacuation was declared and the river rose in their vacated houses.

“As the townsfolk waited they stayed with friends or relatives – and eventually in trailers provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, quickly nicknamed “FEMAville.” And they met in the school gyms of nearby towns to begin to think of what to do. As the receding river revealed its damage, the concept of moving the whole town took shape.

” ‘We took the idea to the residents,’ recalls Mr. Knobloch, an investment and insurance broker who four months earlier had been reelected mayor. ‘We said we have no idea how to do this, and no idea if it’s going to work. We’re not even sure yet what’s involved. But if we try it, will you be willing to be a part of it?’ 

“Nearly 70% of the people said yes. Many had grown up in Valmeyer, and had families there for two or three generations. ‘They didn’t want to see the town go away,’ he says.

“Soon they focused on a 500-acre cornfield on a bluff 2 miles away. Residents split into a bevy of committees to work with planners, engineers, and architects. Within two months, Mr. Knobloch went to Washington with printed plans drawn up by the townsfolk, and asked for money. The politicians were impressed.

“Eventually, state and federal governments pledged about 80% of the $33 million cost. The town bought the land on the bluff, pulled numbers from a hat to lottery off lots, and began construction. Mr. Knobloch quit his job – his wife, a microbiologist, supported the family – and worked full time through all the permits, planning, and problems of creating a town from nothing.

“They dealt with 22 agencies, unexpected limestone sinkholes, protected bat species, and a hurried archaeological excavation when Native American artifacts were found. …

“Looking back on it now, with what we were able to achieve, to keep the community together and keep the people together – definitely, it was well worth the time and effort.’ “

Read about both upsides and downsides — and about the people who chose to stay put — at the Monitor, here.

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Photo: Travel PR.
The Kuomboka, celebrated at this time of year if the conditions are right, marks the arrival of the wet season in Zambia. (The elephant’s ears are removable.)

According to my little book of holidays, a celebration called Kuomboka should take place in Zambia today to mark the change of seasons. Several websites, however, say the date is flexible.

GoWhereWhen, which says that coronavirus is an issue this year, describes the event: “This annual procession marks the transition of the Litunga (king) from his summer to winter residence, which is located on higher ground, away from the seasonal flood plains. This ceremony dates back more than 300 years when the Lozi people broke away from the great Lunda Empire to come and settle in the upper regions of the Zambezi.” 

Wikipedia adds, “Kuomboka is a word in the Lozi language; it literally means ‘to get out of water.’ In today’s Zambia it is applied to a traditional ceremony that takes place at the end of the rain season, when the upper Zambezi River floods the plains of the Western Province. …

“Historians claim that before the time of the first known male Lozi chief Mboo, there came a great flood called Meyi-a-Lungwangwa meaning ‘the waters that swallowed everything.’ The vast plain was covered in the deluge, all animals died and every farm was swept away.

“People were afraid to escape the flood in their little dugout canoes. So it was that the high god, Nyambe, ordered a man called Nakambela to build the first great canoe, Nalikwanda, which means ‘for the people,’ to escape the flood. Thus the start of what is known today as the Kuomboka ceremony.

“The ceremony is preceded by heavy drumming of the royal Maoma drums, which echoes around the royal capital the day before Kuomboka, announcing the event. … The ceremony begins with two white scout canoes that are sent to check the depth of the water and for the presence of any enemies. Once the scouts signal the ‘all clear,’ the journey to the highland begins. … The journey to Limulunga normally takes about 6–8 hours. Drums beat throughout to coordinate and energise those paddling the barge. …

“On the barge is a replica of a huge black elephant, the ears of which can be moved from inside the barge. There is also a fire on board, the smoke from which tells the people that the king is alive and well. The Nalikwanda is large enough to carry his possessions, his attendants, his musicians, his 100 paddlers. It is considered a great honour to be one of the hundred or so paddlers on the nalikwanda and each paddler wears a headdress of a scarlet beret with a piece of a lion’s mane and a knee-length skirt of animal skins.

“For his wife there is a second barge. This one has a huge cattle egret (Nalwange) on top. The wings move like the ears of the elephant, up and down.”

Lonely Planet points out that the dates are not fixed: “They’re dependent on the rains. In fact, the Kuomboka does not happen every year and is not infrequently cancelled because of insufficient flood waters; the 2012 ceremony was called off because it’s against Lozi tradition to hold the Kuomboka under a full moon.”

More at GoWhereWhen, here, at Wikipedia, here, and at Lonely Planet, here.

Photo: Dietmar Hatzenbichler
Legend has it that an African god told a man called Nakambela to build a great canoe to escape the floods. The boat was called Nalikwanda.

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Photos: Mahmud Hossain Opu for NPR
The nonprofit group Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha has a fleet of 23 school boats in Bangladesh. The boats pick up kids along the river, then pull over into the marshy riverbank to hold class.

Kids complain about school when school is a given, but what about when it is hard to access? I have been reading about a fire-ravaged county in California that has no schools right now (story here). California is sure to get it together before long, but what about poor countries with drastic education challenges?

Jason Beaubien reports about Bangladesh at National Public Radio (NPR). “On the Atrai River in the northwest of Bangladesh, a small beige boat is tied up in tall grass that lines the riverbank. The interior of the boat is packed with narrow benches which in turn are jammed with children.

“There are 29 students in this third-grade class and it would be hard to fit any more into the narrow vessel. The kids sit shoulder-to-shoulder facing a blackboard at the back of the boat.

“When the teacher asks for a volunteer to recite a multiplication table, 8-year-old Nila Khatun’s hand shoots straight toward the unpainted ceiling.

“She leads the class in a chant that begins with ‘6 times 1 equals 6’ in Bengali. They end with ‘6 times 9 equals 54.’

“Educators in Bangladesh have a problem. Not only do they face many of the same challenges as teachers in other resource-poor countries — funding constraints, outdated textbooks, overcrowded classrooms — they also have to worry about monsoon rains. Flooding is so common in Bangladesh that students often can’t get to the classroom.

“So one local charity has decided to take the classrooms to the students in the form of schools on boats.

“This boat is one of 23 floating year-round schools in this part of Bangladesh run by Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha, a local nonprofit group. …

“Mohammed Rezwan, the founder of Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha, grew up in this part of Bangladesh.

” ‘If you visit these areas you’ll find that during the monsoon season they get isolated,’ he says. ‘It becomes very difficult to have the normal life.’ …

” ‘In the rural areas. the parents are mostly concerned with the safety of the girls,’ he says. ‘If they [girls] have to travel a long way to go to school, then the parents would not let them go to school.’ …

“That’s true for the family of third-grader Nila. Her mother Musa Khatun says that if it wasn’t for the floating school, Nila probably wouldn’t be in school at all. …

“Khatun says that during the monsoons the village is only accessible by boat. Their family primarily survives by raising jute in the nearby plains. The long, fibrous plant is used to make burlap bags. Nila’s mother, however, sees a different future for Nila. She says Nila is the smart one of the family. No one in their family has ever gone to college, yet Khatun insists her daughter is going to be a doctor.

“And Nila nods her head enthusiastically.”

More here, including eleven wonderful pictures.

When class is done for the day, the boat putters along the river to drop off its students. 

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Photo: Katherine Frey/The Washington Post
Stores along Main Street in the refugee-welcoming town of Ellicott City sustained severe damage after flooding in May. Grateful refugees were determined to help out after all the kindness shown them.

Not only do refugees contribute to both the US economy and the budget, but many are eager to return kindnesses shown to them when they were first finding their way in an unfamiliar land. In this article, Syrians did some fund raising for a small, flooded town that had welcomed them. Terrence McCoy reported the story for the Washington Post.

“The first time Majd AlGhatrif saw this historic mill town of colonial buildings at the confluence of the Patapsco and Tiber rivers [in Maryland], he thought of Syria.

“The structures, built of gray stone, and the history they evoked, reminded him of the timelessness and architecture of his hometown, Sweida, in southern Syria. He soon bought a house here, in 2013, then opened Syriana Cafe & Gallery, in 2016, and came to view everything about Ellicott City’s people — their kindness and decency — as an antidote to the fear others were expressing over Syrian immigrants like him.

“So when floods again ripped through here in May, killing a Maryland National Guardsman, closing businesses up and down its historic district and producing images of destruction recalling the floods of 2016, he vowed to do anything he could to help a community that had become his own.

“The result of that vow came to fruition [September 22] at Syriana, where he presented the city with a check for $10,000, which he had raised from Syrian Americans from all over the country who had seen the destruction and wanted to show their gratitude not just to Ellicott, but also to the United States for accepting them.

We wanted this to be a payback from Syrian Americans to a generous America,’ said AlGhatrif, a physician at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, handing an oversize check to community leaders.

“The check was a rare bit of good news in a city that has survived 246 years but is now reckoning with its own mortality — one more town grappling with existential questions, as the globe warms and natural disasters increase in frequency and ferocity. …

“The community is considering a sweeping $50 million plan to mollify future damage from flooding, but it would require the demolishment of as many as 19 buildings, cleaving out a piece of history in a city whose livelihood to a large degree depends on that very history.

“What we have to realize is that if we don’t do something, the town will die,” said Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman (R). … After the last flood, he said, ‘the calculus changed.’

“AlGhatrif witnessed that firsthand. … He knew that the community meant a lot not just to him, but also to other Syrian immigrants and refugees. His cafe employed several who, after years of fear during the Syrian war, had come to feel safe in Ellicott City.

“One was Safa Alfares, 17. She was born in Aleppo, whose scenes of war and bodies still dominate her thoughts. [She] had arrived expecting to face Islamaphobia. …

“But as she learned English, in which she became fluent in less than two years, and after she found a job at Syriana, her sense of foreboding gave way to something she had not experienced since the beginning of the war: calm.”

This is such a touching story. Read more here.

Hat tip: @bostonmigration ‏on twitter.

 

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Photograph: Devesh Uba
Grocery store in Makoko, Lagos, Nigeria.

A recent manmade-island story in the Guardian made me think of Francesca Forrest’s lovely novel Pen Pal, which involves a girl in a floating community in the U.S. South who corresponds with a political prisoner in Asia.

The Guardian article, however, is about designers and architects building islands for populations threatened by rising seas.

Jessa Gamble writes, “It may seem like science fiction, but as rising sea levels threaten low-lying nations around the world, neighbourhoods like [the Yan Ma Tei breakwater in Hong Kong’s Causeway Bay, where residents live in boats] may become more common.

“Whereas some coastal cities will double down on sea defences, others are beginning to explore a solution that welcomes approaching tides. What if our cities themselves were to take to the seas? …

“The immediate and most numerous victims of climate change are sure to be in the developing world. In Lagos, the sprawling slum of Makoko regularly suffers floods, and its stilted houses are shored up with each new inundation. It’s under threat of razing by authorities.

“The Nigerian-born architect Kunlé Adeyemi proposes a series of A-frame floating houses to replace the existing slum. As proof of concept, his team constructed a floating school for the community. Still, many buildings do not make a city: infrastructure remains a problem here. One solution would be to use docking stations with centralised services, rather like hooking up a caravan to power, water and drainage lines at a campground.” More.

It all sounds like Noah building an ark. But I can’t help thinking it would be better to end global warming in the first place.

Photograph: Seasteading Institute, by way of the Guardian
The Seasteading Institute proposes a series of floating villages.

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Hurricane Sandy was terrible for many communities in its path, and the devastation has given urgency to climate concerns and innovative solutions.

Henry Fountain writes about one such solution in the NY Times, “With a few dull thuds, the one-ton bag of high-strength fabric tumbled from the wall of the mock subway tunnel and onto the floor. Then it began to grow. As air flowed into it through a hose, the bundle inflated until it was crammed tight inside the 16-foot-diameter tunnel, looking like the filling in a giant concrete-and-steel cannoli.

“The three-minute procedure, conducted on a chilly morning this month in an airport hangar not far from West Virginia University, was the latest test of a device that may someday help guard real tunnels during disasters — whether a terrorist strike or a storm like Hurricane Sandy, whose wind-driven surge of water overwhelmed New York City’s subway system, shutting it down for days.

“ ‘The goal is to provide flooding protection for transportation tunnels,’ said John Fortune, who is managing the project for the federal Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate.

“The idea is a simple one: rather than retrofitting tunnels with metal floodgates or other expensive structures, the project aims to use a relatively cheap inflatable plug to hold back floodwaters.

“In theory, it would be like blowing up a balloon inside a tube. But in practice, developing a plug that is strong, durable, quick to install and foolproof to deploy is a difficult engineering task, one made even more challenging because of the pliable, relatively lightweight materials required.”

More.

Photograph: NY Times

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