Along Mississippi, An Old Sense Of Dread Rises Flooding expected to soak towns from Illinois to Louisiana 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 we think about natural disasters.
NPR logo Along The Mississippi, An Old Sense Of Dread Rises

Along The Mississippi, An Old Sense Of Dread Rises

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.

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.