The Limits of Science Communications: Why Do People Live in Floodplains?

Is it worth living in a home where this could happen?

Is it worth living in a home where this could happen?

By Julie Morse, project ecologist, Skagit River Program

It’s flood season. I live in western Washington where, as you likely know, it can be rather wet. The rivers here have reached flood stage more than 1400 times in the last 20 years.  Flood season is just a fact of life in the Pacific Northwest.  I get it.

But the thing is, I don’t get it.  As a relative newcomer to the Pacific Northwest, I’ve never experienced a really bad flood.  This fact precludes me from answering a common question that comes up frequently: why do people live in the floodplain? Fundamentally, this question is about science communication. After all, if we just presented people with the facts, they wouldn’t be so likely to live in a floodplain. Right?

I decided to take a different route. Having come across the photo above of a home destroyed by a flood on the Sauk River numerous times, I decided to track down the owner, who surely had something to say on this topic.

I found the homeowner, Virginia, and asked: why would any sane person choose to live in the floodplain and deal with the stress of flood season every year?  (Full discloser: I own a home in the 100-year floodplain.  Due to subsidence, my land is essentially sub-tidal and less than 1 mile from the bay front).

Virginia Doty who lived in the flooded home pictured at the start of this blog.

Virginia Doty who lived in the flooded home pictured at the start of this blog.

Virginia Doty is no ordinary soul.  Turning 90 this year, she’s as independent and sharp as they come. I aspire to have my life’s resume be as full as hers: from river rafting guide, to mechanic, to working for the Forest Service for 24 years until she finally retired at the age of 86.  In 1979, after having raised 3 kids in Seattle, she moved out to Darrington, Washington and built a house near the Sauk River.  She had been to a home show in Seattle and saw a dome house; she loved it, and so that’s what she built.  She was 55 years old.

The family called the house, Moongate, and she had 20 “good years” living there.  With cats, 2 dogs, and more than100 free-roaming chickens, it was a place all the grandchildren loved.  They had 3 family weddings out there.  Everyone pitched in and took care of the place, especially in 2001 when her son-n-law put a new roof on the house.  And in 2002, she lost the house to the river.

As Virginia says: “Rivers have a mind of their own. I guess they know exactly where they’re going.”

Virginia's home and the path of the flood: "Rivers have a mind of their own."

Virginia’s home and the path of the flood: “Rivers have a mind of their own.”

Virginia didn’t live in the floodplain.  She was a good 30 feet from the bank, and you couldn’t see the river from the house as a forested island separated her from the main stem river. To Virginia, it was a “freak accident” when the river changed its course.  And yet any hydrologist would quickly correct her pointing out she lived in a “channel migration zone”.

And so, I asked, is it worth it?   “Oh yes. We all loved it there”

To me, that is the essence of why sane people choose to live through flood seasons every year.  Why sane people (like me?) buy property knowing full well if the sea dike fails I would be the proud owner of half an acre of tidelands.  No amount of science-river hydrology or climate-altered flow modeling, holds water next to one’s emotional connection to place.

And to me, this is the underlying issue with science communications.  We can dress up our data by making channel migration zone maps sexier, putting climate statistics into fancy infographics, and telling compelling stories.  But at the end of the day, most decisions – certainly important ones like where we live — are based on the decision maker’s values and beliefs.

Science can play a role in informing one’s beliefs. But can it trump the power of family memories, of family weddings, of the grandkids chasing chickens through the yard?

There is no infographic for that.

Having the science is not enough; perhaps we need to spend time listening and understanding the values, the connections to place and the memories that inform decisions.

Opinions expressed on Cool Green Science and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy.
Julie Morse is an ecologist with The Nature Conservancy in Washington, where she works with local communities to translate data into local decisions. From integrated floodplain management, climate adaptation, to working lands conservation, Julie’s work is focused on building multiple benefits solutions with communities in Puget Sound. Prior to joining the Conservancy in 2008, she spent a decade working on migratory bird conservation in Alaska. Julie is passionate about communicating science effectively so that communities can make smart and sustainable decisions.

Comments: The Limits of Science Communications: Why Do People Live in Floodplains?

  •  Comment from Angela

    Why have people chosen to live on the Somerset levels which are marshland and liable to flood.? Why build villages on level ground near rivers liable to flood? Why blame everybody but themselves?

  •  Comment from Dyrk Yeager

    Humans inherently don’t wish to take responsibility for their own actions. They often attribute their misfortune to powers beyond their control, yet do not take it upon themselves to plan ahead to mitigate their circumstances.

    In fairness, to say that humans are in general prone to this behavior is not a fair statement. It is a cultural one, as not all cultures insist on an extraction/expend/expansionist ethic common among dominant industrial cultures – Europe/Commonwealth nations, North America, Asia. As long as this cultural ethic of infrastructure and population expansion continues into natural areas that are prone to either flooding, tornadoes/hurricanes, earthquakes, etc. we will see ever greater calamity and destruction to the built environment. In fact, the odds of it happening increase along with the growing footprint of the infrastructure. The most unfortunate aspect of this seeming addiction to expansion is the suffering and loss of life it will cause to these growing populations.To further complicate matters, a diminishing resource base will be unable to keep pace with the demand for new construction to replace what is lost, creating a negative feedback cycle (increasing demand, decreasing supply).

    Compound this with the changes in the climate and the increasing frequency and severity of storms (causation for this climate change is up to you, regardless, it’s occurring)and these cultures have a recipe designed for infrastructure destruction, sentimentality aside.

    If we wish to digress into the sentimentality of places, and spiritualism, then a review of the impact of European settlement, displacement, and development in former Aboriginal territories warrants discussion. Many of the places that the Asiatic-American peoples who initially immigrated here were spiritual and revered as supernatural, though they have been utterly altered or destroyed by more recent Euro-ethnic expansion, agriculture and industrialism. In other words, the current cultural ethos gripping major industrial nations.

    In all truth, the land is as it is, the water is as it is, and the weather is as it is, subject to to their own processes regardless though we attempt to force, control or manage them. There is a conceit in such attempts…and a lack of reverence for the power and authority of our world and our place in it. Our current efforts to maintain the status-quo of competition and growth will certainly guarantee our vulnerability to nature.

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