The Untamable Mississippi River

May 7, 2011

The rain-swollen Mississippi River crested to an all-time high last week as it surged past Cairo, Ill., exceeding the 1937 record by 2 feet. Government engineers were left with two choices: Let Cairo flood or explode a levee to save the town. They blew up the levee. But while Cairo was saved, other communities may not be so lucky.

“We’re going to fight this river all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico,” said Col. Vernie L. Reichling Jr. of the Army Corps of Engineers. The battle against North America’s longest river is never-ending, as The Times’s Isabel Wilkerson found in 1993, another year of record flooding.

The excerpt below is from a collection of articles that won a Pulitzer Prize.

THERE HAVE BEEN FLOODS BEFORE. People in Hannibal, Mo., or Keokuk, Iowa, or Quincy, Ill., can tell you about watching their fathers and uncles pack sandbags to protect the year’s corn crop or the feed store. For generations, some farmers figured floods and droughts into the cost of doing business. But then the country’s big plumbing system of levees and dams, made better after every flood, was supposed to keep the rivers in their place and maintain the comfortable paradox of living on a floodplain.

There have been floods before. People in Hannibal, Now the unimaginable has happened. Across the Midwestern cornbelt it has rained in biblical proportions — 49 straight days, often in torrents. The rivers, driven past their banks, have taken back land that long ago was theirs, invading 15 million acres of farmland in eight states, forcing 36,000 people from their homes, halting river traffic for 600 miles and causing billions of dollars in damage.

There have been floods before. People in Hannibal, From the air, from Minnesota to Missouri, from Kansas to Illinois, it looks like someone has spilled gallons and gallons of coffee on a green patchwork quilt that happens to be farms and towns. In silt rivers now wide as lakes, treetops look like bushes in a swimming pool, bridges and highways and other brave monuments to engineering are reduced to thin, threatened slivers, and even their builders know the water could take them, too, if it wanted. The floods have made the broad, S-curved Mississippi and its otherwise perfectly ordered valley look more like the Florida Keys. …

There have been floods before. People in Hannibal, The river, ecologists and farmers say, was never supposed to follow the tight course humans have expected it to, indeed ordered it to, with their walls of dirt and concrete levees. Of course, that has not stopped people from building homes and farms and cities along the river. The Mississippi Valley’s thick black soil is considered the richest on earth, impossible for farmers to resist.

There have been floods before. People in Hannibal, But to claim the land meant making a bargain with the river, confining it to an artificially narrow path so that farms could reach as far as the shore and places like New Orleans and St. Louis could live undisturbed while their goods were carried safely from port to port. The price that river people pay is sudden and catastrophic flooding when excess rainwater, forced into a narrow channel by the levees, runs out of places to go and cannot drain naturally into the soil. …

There have been floods before. People in Hannibal, The great lesson of the floods may be that humans will have to do a lot more if they are to outwit nature, if that is even possible. — ISABEL WILKERSON

Copyright. 2011. The New York Times Company. All Rights reserved


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