Making Sure the Next Flood Isn’t a Tragedy

In late May 2019, a massive rainfall caused the Neosho River and Tar Creek to flood their banks, inundating the heart of Miami, Okla.

Wherever and whenever it hits, a flood is a messy business. The floodwaters are indiscriminate, carrying with them whatever is in their path and leaving behind warped walls and black mold. In our community, it’s even worse: The old lead and zinc mines along Tar Creek, which began operating a century ago, leach hazardous waste into the waters in normal times.

In a flood, the mine discharge mixes in with the mud-brown water, carrying heavy metals along with sediment left behind in playgrounds, parks and gardens.

More than two years later, our city of 13,000 is still working to recover from the 2019 flood. The sediment in our riverfront park is up to the level of the benches. Homeowners are still waiting for the government to dig out the toxic waste in their yards.

With the very real legacy of stolen and contaminated land in our area, there are layers and layers of injustices laid bare by these floods.

And while we need help recovering, that’s not nearly enough. We also need to plan for the next disaster.

Our climate is changing, and here in eastern Oklahoma the impacts are front and center. With bigger, wetter storms, the floods are stronger and deeper; more flooding means the ground is saturated and so the next flood causes even more damage.

Thankfully, after years of trying to ignore the threats of climate change and associated health and environmental disasters, the federal government is beginning to act.

First, the infrastructure bill that President Joe Biden recently signed will provide funds to move or make resilient hospitals, schools and firehouses so that a flood won’t lead to a health or public safety emergency.

Here in Miami, we saw the impact of this up close as the regional head of the Army Corps of Engineers recently explained to city officials how funds could be used to make our schools and hospitals more resilient.

Second, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has begun the process of overhauling building codes, land-use policies, mapping and flood disclosure as part of its oversight of the National Flood Insurance Program. This would be the first overhaul of this program in nearly five decades — and it’s long overdue.

Flood insurance is crucial for my neighbors in flood-prone areas, helping them repair or rebuild after a flood. These changes to the flood insurance program hold much more promise: By reforming the rules that go along with insurance, they promise to help prevent flood damage in 22,000 communities nationwide.

I have already weighed in, telling FEMA to adopt strong new standards. Everyone in a flood-prone community nationwide should do the same. You can comment here.

As the saying goes, floods are acts of God, but flood losses are acts of man.

Updating maps to account for current flood risks (not those from decades ago) means more people will know they need flood insurance. Better land use standards ensure homes aren’t built in a place where they will get flooded over and over again, or natural barriers help absorb and deflect rising water. And building codes mean homes are better able to withstand some inundation.

Unfortunately, we need these rules put in place yesterday.

Strong rules from FEMA can help avoid the worst catastrophe from flooding, helping all those in Miami and far beyond withstand the next storm even before it arrives. Members of the public have a chance to weigh in with FEMA before its comment period ends in late January. My fellow residents from Miami will be making their voices heard; I can only hope those around the nation will be doing so as well.


Rebecca Jim is the Tar Creekkeeper, founder of Local Environmental Action Demanded in northeast Oklahoma and a member of the Cherokee Nation.

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