Will we ever heed the lessons of the futility of trying to manage the Mississippi? In The Mississippi And The Making of a Nation, written by historians Stephen Ambrose and Douglas Brinkley — a book commissioned by National Geographic and the Louisiana Purchase Bicentennial Commission to celebrate the U.S. acquisition of the mighty river as part of the land deal two centuries ago — the authors had some prescient things to say about the Mississippi and its floods.
Excerpt: page 224, The Quad Cities and Dubuque
Since the Great Flood of 1927, the Corps of Engineers has gone to great lengths to protect residents from the periodic ravages of the Mississippi. Yet humankind still has not mastered the river, as those who survived were reminded when the latest great flood in 1993 killed 50 people, destroyed 55,000 homes and exacted more than $15 billion in property losses. Everybody we talked to in Iowa cities such as Burlington and Dubuque and Davenport had stories about the 1993 flood. They were perplexed as to why the Corps of Engineers was unable to prevent such a massive disaster. In response to the Great Flood of 1927, Congress had voted for sharply increased funds for the Corps of Engineers. The Corps’s overall mission was to speed the river’s flow by making its course shorter and straighter—so it could run faster to the Gulf of Mexico and so its waters would not rise—and to erect dams on strategic tributaries that would form lakes to hold back flooding.
“The 1993 flood was the worst ever known north of Cairo,” Patricia Lauber wrote in Flood: Wrestling with the Mississippi. There was major damage along the Missouri River and the other tributaries. The floods covered millions of acres of farmland and drove 36,000 people from their homes. The most severe flooding came along 464 miles of the Mississippi, from McGregor, Iowa, down to St. Louis.
Bad as it was, the 1993 flood was not as severe as the one on the lower Mississippi in 1927. Congress and the American people responded to the 1993 flood by wanting real change. Instead of building more levees, the federal government began a process of buying whole towns or parts of them, along with farms, on the flood plain and moving the residents to higher ground. Moving people would cost less than rebuilding levees and paying for flood relief. Let the river spread rather than rise and try to hold it in, was the idea. Within two years, 8,000 families had sold their property to the government and moved to higher ground.
By allowing the river to spread, flora and fauna will reap the benefits. Birds, deer, and other animals will return to the flood plain. At high water, the animals will move to higher ground while the fish can swim into the flooded areas to spawn. Ducks and geese will fly in to nest and feed. When the water drains off, the creatures will return to the flood plain. But this exchange does not take place all along the Mississippi Valley, and people will continue to fight the river. In the end the river will win. Just ask anyone who lived along the Mississippi in 1927 or 1993.
Ten years after The Mississippi And The Making of a Nation was first published, the great Mississippi floods of 2011 have added a chapter to the saga of the river. Will we now take the advice of Ambrose and Brinkley, and give the river the land it needs to spread naturally?
David Braun is director of outreach with the digital and social media team illuminating the National Geographic Society’s explorer, science, and education programs.
He edits National Geographic Voices, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society’s mission and major initiatives. Contributors include grantees and Society partners, as well as universities, foundations, interest groups, and individuals dedicated to a sustainable world. More than 50,000 readers have participated in 10,000 conversations.
Braun also directs the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship.