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6 september 2019

John Withington's Flood begins, appropriately, with "The" Flood, the one in Gilgamesh and Genesis. That one probably didn't happen, but for that very reason it's the perfect entrée to an opening discussion of floods in mythology, a global phenomenon.

Withington goes on to discuss the much more prosaic reality of floods. He moves on to floods in literature and floods in the visual arts. Honestly, a lot of this material consists of lists of floods. That's OK. Lists are good. I make a lot of lists, myself. Withington ends up enumerating mythical floods, worldwide; real and really destructive floods, of late; floods in literature, art, and film; flood-control projects; and the ways in which floods inevitably defeat our attempts to control them.

Floods, to me, seem among the most sinister of common disasters. It is perhaps their physical implacability that makes floods unbearable. Tornadoes are tricksters. Hurricanes are humanized by their names; they have a lifespan and a path in life (sometimes augmented by Sharpie). Volcanoes are grumpy uncles. The fault lines that produce earthquakes are bipolar partners, lulling us placidly along till they snap. But a flood is a wall of water, or occasionally molasses, that has no personality and no quirks. It relentlessly seeks its own level. The only law it respects is the law of gravity.

Floods in the 21st century, Katrina being the most memorable in the United States, have devastated many a coastal region. Often the best defense is not dams or levees, but a concerted program to turn low-lying paved-over areas back into the wetlands they used to be. Floods have grown costlier and costlier, but that's an artifact of development, Withington argues (150-51). As we expand human habitation nearer and nearer a rising shoreline, we can expect greater and greater costs, economically and in terms of human lives.

I live 600 feet above sea level, but floods are an occasional concern for me. Storm management in Dallas/Ft. Worth consists of paving over anything visible and hoping for the best. Our innocuous suburban neighborhood is cut through by a ditch that depends on the vigilance of neighbors to keep clear, and the intelligence of drivers to stay out of when it flash-floods. It is not uncommon to see the street in front of us turned into a miniature Johnstown, while the "creek" out back rises steadily and sends a sheet of water toward our backdoor catflap. The cats are generally cooler about this than we are.

Our garden would be less floodprone if the Texas city we lived in didn't have a penchant for putting up parking lots and thinking about the many-removes consequences only much later, when the rains come. And floods aren't really much of a problem here. The disaster potential comes when obviously floodable places exhibit the same lack of environmental foresight.

Withington, John. Flood. London: Reaktion, 2013.