Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Hell and High Water

My stomping grounds along Iowa's Maquoketa River got more national attention than we would have liked this past weekend when massive flooding caused a dam failure.  (I'm sure most of you heard, unless you've been in a cave in Tora Bora.)

Upstream from the dam, record flood levels deluged the town of Manchester early Saturday afternoon.  This high water quickly overwhelmed the Delhi Dam south of Manchester and washed away the earthen causeway on the side of the concrete dam.  Hundreds of homes in the unincorporated community of Lake Delhi were damaged or destroyed.

The floodwaters from the ruptured dam rushed downstream toward the towns of Hopkinton and Monticello.  In my town of Monticello the call went out for help filling sandbags.  As soon as I was able to hand the kids off to my wife (who had been in Dubuque), I went down to the city shop and spent a couple hours helping fill sandbags.

The flood put a damper (pardon the pun) on the Great Jones County Fair, which was going on and caused millions of dollars in damages in Monticello. Despite all this, it could have been worse. Thank God no one was killed.

Although this is an extremely localized disaster, it has caused a lot of hardship for several small Iowa communities. I haven't seen any flood-specific relief funds yet, but if anyone desires to help you can can make an online donation to the Grant Wood Area Chapter of the Red Cross (serving the affected counties of Jones and Delaware) here.

Of course I can't go a whole post without pontificating about politics and good governance.  While I was down there filling sandbags I witnessed the various layers of government in action.  Lest I be accused of being an anarchist, I do see the use of some government and various levels for certain jobs.

I could certainly understand what many of the elected officials were trying to do.  The town mayor and a few city officials were coordinating the local efforts, including the sandbagging.  The county sheriff was there coordinating his deputies who were directing traffic from the increasing number of news vans and gawkers and performing countless other important tasks.

Even Governor Culver was on hand to check out the situation.  He ended up calling out the National Guard (although to where and to do what I'm not sure, my boy was disappointed that he never did see any "army trucks").  Although there probably wasn't much that the governor could do right away, in his role as chief executive of the state it was indeed appropriate for him to see if the state resources at his disposal could lend a hand.

The elected officials who really didn't need to be there were the state and federal legislators who showed up to "see first-hand" what was going on and "speed" recovery aid to the area.  I didn't even realize they were there until I was walking out to my car to leave, because they sure weren't out where we were filling sandbags. You could almost see them salivating at all the reporters and news vans around.

They were there for what they're always doing: getting their pictures taken and promising to dole out other peoples money, i.e. campaigning.  The legislature's job is to make laws, not personally deliver the goods.  They should appropriate emergency funds that the executive branch can quickly dispatch to disasters when needed.  Term limits would help ensure legislators from both parties think about what there job actually is, rather than how to keep it. 

As for the promise of federal help: as a constitutional purist who lives safe and dry up on a hill, I won't claim to speak for anyone else in my county, but I don't see that any of this is the federal government's damned business.  As I've written before, the argument that the Constitution's "general welfare clause" authorizes a power not specifically enumerated in the Constitution (like disaster relief) doesn't hold water. 

Besides, if the federal government didn't syphon so much money out of the states it wouldn't have to "benevolently" shovel borrowed money back into them during emergencies.


  1. As someone who has fought flooding Iowa rivers more than once, I'll say this: keep the state out of our way and we citizens can accomplish great things.

    The town of my youth, Oakville, was wiped out when the levy broke in 08. The state DOT was stopping trucks hauling sand to town to weigh them and ended up drawing fines against many of the drivers for being overloaded.

    As you noted, common citizens did the work to fight to save your community. Ordinary people banding together for common cause. It happened on 08 in Cedar Rapids, Waterloo, Iowa City, and (in vain) Oakville and Columbus junction and in other communities.

    Here's one for you - in 93 we were filling sandbags in Oakville and a helicopter landed with some bigshot. Bigshot talked to local bigshots but the pilot came over and helped fill bags. After 30 minutes or so, bigshot was done bloviating and the pilot flew off after wishing us luck.

    I wish I knew the pilot's name.


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