We’ve heard a lot this week about how the floods in the Midwest might be an act of humans — or an act of City Council, as one Iowan leader put it. We can start the futile cycle of fighting Mother Nature again if we want to: spend billions of dollars on levees and flood control infrastructure, encouraging development of river floodplains and low-lying wetlands, then watch those homes and businesses be overrun by flood water.

We saw it with the Mississippi floods in 1993, which caused billions in damages and forced tens of thousands from their homes. Now, here we are again, 15 short years later, and flooding in the Midwest is forcing thousands of people from their homes. It’s causing billions in damages to hard-working farmers, putting historic downtowns under water and breaking or over-topping levees.

In between the 1993 floods and today’s, we’ve also seen how levees failed to protect the residents of New Orleans from Hurricane Katrina’s storm surge. Spurred in part by those tragic events, the federal government recently assessed the integrity and protection level of thousands of miles of levees from coast to coast and found them seriously deficient. Global warming is unlikely to improve the situation.

Even though the protection is inadequate, the levee system leads people living in floodplains to think they’re safe. The levees are touted as protecting them against a “100-year” or “500-year storm.”

It’s far past time to change our approach to flood protection. If we’re serious about avoiding disasters like this in future years, here’s what we’ll ask our government to focus on:

  • Buy out vulnerable lands to put fewer people and less property in harm’s way.
  • Returning those lands to forests and wetlands to provide flood buffers.
  • Reforming the taxpayer-funded National Flood Insurance Program to remove incentives for new flood plain development.
  • Better disclose the risks of living in flood plains, even for those lands behind a levee.
  • Reorient our approach to flood protection, placing high priority wherever possible on the use of the river’s natural floodplain instead of expensive engineered levee and pump systems.

Mother Nature is trying to tell us something. Let’s act before she yells any louder.