Along The Mississippi, An Old Sense Of Dread Rises

  • Cars and trucks in this unknown location are swept away by the raging Mississippi River during the Great Flood of 1927. The flooding along the Mississippi, Arkansas and Red rivers officially killed 246 people and displaced some 700,000 others.
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    Cars and trucks in this unknown location are swept away by the raging Mississippi River during the Great Flood of 1927. The flooding along the Mississippi, Arkansas and Red rivers officially killed 246 people and displaced some 700,000 others.
    Photo courtesy of National Archives
  • The levee at Mounds Landing, Miss., is breached by the swollen Mississippi River in 1927. The flood affected an area roughly the size of New England, from the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to New Orleans.
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    The levee at Mounds Landing, Miss., is breached by the swollen Mississippi River in 1927. The flood affected an area roughly the size of New England, from the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to New Orleans.
    Photo courtesy of The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
  • The Arkansas River swamped parts of Fort Smith, Ark., in 1927.
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    The Arkansas River swamped parts of Fort Smith, Ark., in 1927.
    Photo courtesy of NOAA
  • Lifeboats from New England and the Great Lakes arrive by train in Natchez, Miss., 1927
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    Lifeboats from New England and the Great Lakes arrive by train in Natchez, Miss., 1927
    Photo courtesy of NOAA
  • Lifeboats float off the train bed as it backs into a flooded area of Natchez.
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    Lifeboats float off the train bed as it backs into a flooded area of Natchez.
    Photo courtesy of NOAA
  • Dynamite is used to create a pressure-relieving crevasse in the levee at Caernarvon, La., in 1927.
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    Dynamite is used to create a pressure-relieving crevasse in the levee at Caernarvon, La., in 1927.
    Photo courtesy of NOAA
  • The flood of 1937 hit communities along the Ohio River from Pittsburgh to Cairo, Ill. Workmen in one area built a levee to divert the floodwaters.
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    The flood of 1937 hit communities along the Ohio River from Pittsburgh to Cairo, Ill. Workmen in one area built a levee to divert the floodwaters.
    Courtesy U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Memphis District
  • A makeshift levee protected the city of Memphis during the 1937 flooding, when the Mississippi crested at a record 48.7 feet. By official estimates, 385 people died and 1 million others were left homeless in a flood that rivaled 1927 in loss of life and property.
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    A makeshift levee protected the city of Memphis during the 1937 flooding, when the Mississippi crested at a record 48.7 feet. By official estimates, 385 people died and 1 million others were left homeless in a flood that rivaled 1927 in loss of life and property.
    Courtesy U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Memphis District
  • In the spring of 1973, the overflowing Mississippi River reached its highest level in more than 150 years. A boy surveys the Atchafalaya River Basin from a retaining wall built to keep floodwaters in check in Morgan City, La.
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    In the spring of 1973, the overflowing Mississippi River reached its highest level in more than 150 years. A boy surveys the Atchafalaya River Basin from a retaining wall built to keep floodwaters in check in Morgan City, La.
    Photo courtesy of National Archives
  • A Virginia National Guard crewman stands on debris in the James River as a flood victim is lifted to safety. The 1973 flood affected 16 states, from Illinois to Louisiana, and cost hundreds of millions of dollars in damage.
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    A Virginia National Guard crewman stands on debris in the James River as a flood victim is lifted to safety. The 1973 flood affected 16 states, from Illinois to Louisiana, and cost hundreds of millions of dollars in damage.
    Photo courtesy of NOAA
  • Residents of Gibson, La., rely on boats for transportation during the 1973 flood.
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    Residents of Gibson, La., rely on boats for transportation during the 1973 flood.
    Photo courtesy of National Archives
  • Major flooding in 1993 forced Peterson Paper Co. employee Rick Weber (left) and owner Pete Peterson canoe to work in Davenport, Iowa.
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    Major flooding in 1993 forced Peterson Paper Co. employee Rick Weber (left) and owner Pete Peterson canoe to work in Davenport, Iowa.
    Chris Wilkins/AFP/Getty Images
  • President Bill Clinton surveys a power plant where the Mississippi and Missouri rivers meet near St. Louis. The flooding in the Upper Mississippi Valley in 1993 affected nine states and caused billion of dollars in damage.
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    President Bill Clinton surveys a power plant where the Mississippi and Missouri rivers meet near St. Louis. The flooding in the Upper Mississippi Valley in 1993 affected nine states and caused billion of dollars in damage.
    AFP/Getty Images
  • Highway 40, heading west from St. Louis, is submerged in floodwaters as it dips into the Chesterfield Valley in Missouri, 1993.
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    Highway 40, heading west from St. Louis, is submerged in floodwaters as it dips into the Chesterfield Valley in Missouri, 1993.
    Peter Newcomb/AFP/Getty Images
  • Hundreds of residents in Prairie Du Rocher, Ill., pass sandbags along a levee in a last-ditch attempt to save the town, 1993.
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    Hundreds of residents in Prairie Du Rocher, Ill., pass sandbags along a levee in a last-ditch attempt to save the town, 1993.
    Eugene Garcia/AFP/Getty Images
  • Milton McPike gathered supplies from Cooper's grocery store in Hannibal, Mo., as rising water from the Mississippi River threatened to surround it, 1993.
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    Milton McPike gathered supplies from Cooper's grocery store in Hannibal, Mo., as rising water from the Mississippi River threatened to surround it, 1993.
    Eugene Garcia/AFP/Getty Images

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As the bloated Mississippi River crests at near-record levels in Memphis, Tenn., Southern states are bracing for the slow-moving wall of water expected to soak towns from Illinois to Louisiana in flooding unlike anything seen in the better part of a century.

"The Mississippi is mighty, it's wicked ... and right now it's in a rage," Bob Nations Jr., director of the Office of Preparedness in Tennessee's Shelby County, told NPR this week.

Pictures of ruined neighborhoods and stories from people who lost perhaps all they had underscore the river's destructive power, and officials say it may take weeks to see the full impact.

Mississippi River Flooding

Mississippi Flodding

The flooding has prompted comparisons to the Great Flood of 1927 — a catastrophe that riveted the nation's attention, spurred demands for government action and ultimately changed how Americans think about natural disasters.

After 1927, A 'Never Again' Attitude

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has detonated levees and opened spillways in recent days to try to control flooding that Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour has likened to a pig moving through a python.

Although the river has inundated some 5,000 homes by the corps' count, swamped huge tracts of land and could still hit record crests in some places, comparisons to 1927 fall short. Much of Memphis has been spared from flooding, and engineers said flood control measures should keep the river in check in Mississippi and Louisiana, even as residents steeled themselves for the worst.

The worst is what happened more than 80 years ago, when 27,000 square miles of low-lying areas along the Mississippi, Arkansas and Red rivers — an area spanning roughly the size of all of New England — were underwater in flooding that lasted five months, killed hundreds of people and left hundreds of thousands homeless.

While the Mississippi is just as wicked as it ever was, engineers say it is unlikely that any major metropolitan areas will be inundated as the high water pushes downstream. That's due in large part to the creation of levees and spillways after the 1927 disaster — and the "never again" attitude that moved Congress to rethink the government's role in flood control.

John M. Barry, author of Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood and How It Changed America, said the current flooding is serious but "within the design capacity of the [flood control] system."

Without those post-1927 changes, he said the situation would be far different: "It would be very simple, you would have basically the flood plain of the Mississippi River underwater, and that's 35,000 square miles."

The Rise Of U.S. Flood Control

The 1927 flood was essentially a "series of losing battles" against the rising water at every town stretching from Cairo, Ill., to New Orleans, Barry said.

Major U.S. Floods

  • 1927 — An area roughly the size of New England, from the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers at Cairo, Ill., to New Orleans, was inundated for five months. Official death toll: 246 people. Estimated cost (in today's dollars): $4.3 billion.
  • 1937 — Rivals 1927 disaster for size and scope. Ohio River towns from the state of Ohio to Illinois were severely affected. An estimated 1 million people were made homeless. Official death toll: 385 people. Estimated cost: $7.5 billion.
  • 1973 — One of the largest floods in living memory, 16 states were affected from Illinois to Louisiana. Forced the Morganza Spillway in northern Louisiana to be opened for the first time to relieve pressure upstream. Official death toll: 33 people. Estimated cost: $250 million.
  • 1993 — Affected nine states in the Upper Mississippi Valley from Minnesota to Missouri and lasted from April until October. Official death toll: 32 people. Estimated cost: $22 billion.

Sources: NOAA, contemporaneous newspaper accounts

Hundreds of thousands of people were forced into refugee camps and depended on the Red Cross for food. The government, which ran a record surplus that year, "didn't spend a single penny to feed or clothe or help rehabilitate these people," Barry said.

"There was no expectation [at the time] that the government would do anything for any individual citizen," he said. "I believe 1927 reversed that."

Official records show 246 people died in the flood, but experts said the actual toll is probably much higher.

"The 1927 event flooded almost 1 percent of the entire United States and absolutely riveted the nation's attention, probably even more so than [Hurricane] Katrina," Barry said. "As a result, the country committed to making sure that never happened again."

A year later, Congress passed the Flood Control Act of 1928, which authorized the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to design and construct a system of levees and spillways to control flooding on the Mississippi River and its tributaries.

The legislation reversed the government's "levees only" policy, which directed that levees were to be built only for the purpose of aiding navigation and had no provision for the construction of spillways to relieve pressure on the rivers.

"It was really a fundamental philosophy of the government that we don't do flood control, we do navigation," said John Anfinson, the chief of resource management for the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area.

The corps' project that followed — 29 locks and dams, hundreds of runoff channels and 1,000 miles of levees along the Mississippi — was "the biggest expenditure the federal government ever made except to fight World War I," Barry said.

In 1937, some of those flood works were put to the test. Massive flooding along the Ohio River killed at least 385 people and left 1 million people homeless. The corps was able to reduce the spread of floodwaters on the Lower Mississippi by opening the Bonnet Carre Spillway in Louisiana — completed six years before — for the first time.

  • MAY 20: An American flag reflects in Mississippi River floodwaters outside of a home in south Vicksburg, Miss.
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    MAY 20: An American flag reflects in Mississippi River floodwaters outside of a home in south Vicksburg, Miss.
    Rogelio V. Solis/AP
  • MAY 19: Floodwaters from the Yazoo River creep across fields of crops near Yazoo City, Miss.
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    MAY 19: Floodwaters from the Yazoo River creep across fields of crops near Yazoo City, Miss.
    Dave Martin/AP
  • MAY 19: A boat motors through Mississippi River floodwaters past a wall of flood-containment baskets, known as Hesco baskets, that is protecting the Riverside Medical Center in Vidalia, La.
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    MAY 19: A boat motors through Mississippi River floodwaters past a wall of flood-containment baskets, known as Hesco baskets, that is protecting the Riverside Medical Center in Vidalia, La.
    Gerald Herbert/AP
  • MAY 19: A corrections officer motors through floodwaters of the Mississippi River to pick up prison trustees, who are being used for flood-abatement work in Vidalia.
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    MAY 19: A corrections officer motors through floodwaters of the Mississippi River to pick up prison trustees, who are being used for flood-abatement work in Vidalia.
    Gerald Herbert/AP
  • MAY 17: Floodwaters from the Mississippi river creep across the field as farmers work in Natchez, Miss.
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    MAY 17: Floodwaters from the Mississippi river creep across the field as farmers work in Natchez, Miss.
    Dave MartinAP
  • MAY 16: Barbara Fontanille recovers a tire from the rising waters of the Atchafalaya River in Simmesport, La. Her family has no flood insurance and have relocated to a trailer provided by FEMA.
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    MAY 16: Barbara Fontanille recovers a tire from the rising waters of the Atchafalaya River in Simmesport, La. Her family has no flood insurance and have relocated to a trailer provided by FEMA.
    Mario Tama/Getty Images
  • MAY 15: The flooding in Vicksburg, Miss. has put many houses underwater. Only the roofs are visible on others, like this one.
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    MAY 15: The flooding in Vicksburg, Miss. has put many houses underwater. Only the roofs are visible on others, like this one.
    Carrie Kahn/NPR
  • MAY 14: People watch as water diverted from the Mississippi River spills through a bay in Morganza, La. A  floodgate was slowly raised for the first time in nearly four decades, unleashing a torrent of water from the Mississippi River.
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    MAY 14: People watch as water diverted from the Mississippi River spills through a bay in Morganza, La. A floodgate was slowly raised for the first time in nearly four decades, unleashing a torrent of water from the Mississippi River.
    Patrick Semansky/AP
  • MAY 12: A Black Hawk helicopter carrying Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal flies over the Atchafalaya Basin in Louisiana during a tour of areas that may be affected by flooding if the Morganza Spillway north of Baton Rouge is opened.
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    MAY 12: A Black Hawk helicopter carrying Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal flies over the Atchafalaya Basin in Louisiana during a tour of areas that may be affected by flooding if the Morganza Spillway north of Baton Rouge is opened.
    Patrick Semansky/AP
  • MAY 11: City workers load sandbags for re-enforcing a levee gate onto a boat in Vicksburg. Historic Vicksburg, the site of a pivotal Civil War battle, has been one of the hardest-hit cities.
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    MAY 11: City workers load sandbags for re-enforcing a levee gate onto a boat in Vicksburg. Historic Vicksburg, the site of a pivotal Civil War battle, has been one of the hardest-hit cities.
    Scott Olson/Getty Images
  • MAY 10: A flood wall protects the Pyramid Arena from the swollen Mississippi River after it crested at nearly 48 feet in Memphis, Tenn.
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    MAY 10: A flood wall protects the Pyramid Arena from the swollen Mississippi River after it crested at nearly 48 feet in Memphis, Tenn.
    Jeff Roberson/AP
  • MAY 9: A street sign in the Ford subdivision is nearly submerged  in Vicksburg.
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    MAY 9: A street sign in the Ford subdivision is nearly submerged in Vicksburg.
    Bryant Hawkins/The Vicksburg Evening Post/AP
  • MAY 8: Residents gather at the edge of the floodwaters in the West Junction neighborhood of Memphis.
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    MAY 8: Residents gather at the edge of the floodwaters in the West Junction neighborhood of Memphis.
    Scott Olson/Getty Images
  • MAY 8: Volunteers in Memphis fill sandbags to help hold back rising floodwater.
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    MAY 8: Volunteers in Memphis fill sandbags to help hold back rising floodwater.
    Scott Olson/Getty Images
  • MAY 4: Sally Nance helps her neighbors remove clothes from their home in Tiptonville, Tenn.
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    MAY 4: Sally Nance helps her neighbors remove clothes from their home in Tiptonville, Tenn.
    Scott Olson/Getty Images

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But the corps' system of levees and spillways also has acted like a vise on the river in places, squeezing more water through levees and creating bottlenecks that can raise the water level.

Major flooding in 1993 on the Upper Mississippi, where such floods are far less common, illustrated the problem. At St. Louis, for example, it was "not a record flood in terms of volume, but in terms of height," said Anfinson, author of The River We Wrought: A History of the Upper Mississippi.

The 1993 flood killed 32 people and ranks among the costliest in U.S. history: $22 billion in today's dollars.

"The damage was so great partially because people in the Upper Mississippi were just not prepared for such big floods," said Gerald Galloway, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Maryland and a former officer in the Army Corps of Engineers.

Controversial Mitigation Measures

On Monday in Louisiana, the corps partially opened the Bonnet Carre Spillway that diverts the Mississippi into Lake Pontchartrain to ease pressure on levees protecting New Orleans. It was the 10th time the spillway has been opened since its completion in 1931.

The corps is also considering opening the Morganza Spillway north of Baton Rouge, which hasn't been opened since a massive flood in 1973. If that happens, residents could expect water up to 25 feet deep to inundate parts of seven parishes. Some of Louisiana's most valuable farmland would be underwater.

The rising Mississippi has already forced the corps to blast away part of the Birds Point levee in Missouri — sacrificing 130,000 acres of farmland to protect the town of Cairo, Ill., from flooding.

Despite such controversial measures, Galloway believes that the corps' efforts over the past eight decades have paid off.

"Assuming the protection goes as planned, I think after this event is over, we'll say, 'Thank goodness that we invested in the Lower Mississippi over all these years,' " Galloway said.

But that's little comfort to people such as 87-year-old Rufus Harris Jr., who moved to New Orleans just a few months after the Great Flood of 1927. He told The Associated Press he was too young to remember the disaster, but that he was taught to have a healthy respect for the mighty Mississippi.

"People have a right to be concerned in this area because there's always a possibility of a levee having a defective spot," Harris said.

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