Wet, Wild And High: Lakes And Rivers Wreak Havoc Across Midwest, South Parts of the Mississippi have been above flood stage for months. All of the Great Lakes are at or near record-high levels. It's halting barge traffic, damaging infrastructure and eroding shorelines.
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Wet, Wild And High: Lakes And Rivers Wreak Havoc Across Midwest, South

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Wet, Wild And High: Lakes And Rivers Wreak Havoc Across Midwest, South

Wet, Wild And High: Lakes And Rivers Wreak Havoc Across Midwest, South

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Many Americans have seen their communities devastated by floods this year. Some regions have seen record amounts of rain since the early spring. The Mississippi River and tributaries spent months above flood stage, while all of the Great Lakes are nearly at or above historic heights. And today we're beginning a four-part series looking at the cost and the impact of all of that water. Here's NPR's Cheryl Corley in Chicago.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: I'm standing at Juneway Terrace Beach, a small beach right next to an apartment building on Chicago's far North Side. The waves are calm today, but the beach has been completely submerged by water, and the sidewalk here, smashed into pieces. And there are barriers around a huge sinkhole.

JENNY LEARNER: To me, it's a crisis.

CORLEY: Jenny Learner (ph) is an artist who lives in an apartment adjacent to this beach. She says the steel girders and rocks buttressing the building just aren't enough.

LEARNER: The waves hit my kitchen window and my dining room window. Extremely powerful waves. And they have no place to go if they don't have a barrier. It's not just a crisis for me, personally. It's a crisis for the whole city.

CORLEY: Six years ago, it was record-low water levels in the Great Lakes worrying people. Now the opposite is true. Hydrology expert Keith Kompoltowicz is with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which measures rivers and lakes. Data shows for several years now the Great Lakes have been on the rise, especially in recent months.

KEITH KOMPOLTOWICZ: The months of April and May, we had extremely wet weather across the Great Lakes Basin. And that caused the lakes to rise very quickly this spring and now brought us to where we are, either setting records or approaching records, depending on the lake.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONSTRUCTION EQUIPMENT WORKING)

CORLEY: In Duluth, Minn., crews are at work rebuilding the Lake Walk at the edge of Lake Superior. Project supervisor Mike LeBeau (ph) says in just one year, three major storms with waves as high as 25 feet caused about $25 million in damage. LeBeau says the latest storm, last year, took away acres of land.

MIKE LEBEAU: It undermined the boardwalk there. It undermined the buried electrical wiring for the lights. It moved a lot of material, including some very large rocks, just back out into the lake. So it's been hard for the city to catch its breath, frankly.

CORLEY: And now it's not just the lakes. The Mississippi River has had a record-high water season for months now. The river and its tributaries have flooded millions of acres of farmland, damaged roads, levees, slowed commercial river traffic and affected downstream fisheries. Paul Osman with the Illinois Office of Water Resources says some of the greatest damage, though, often occurs in neighborhoods far from a river or lake because older communities sometimes don't have the capacity to handle intense rainfall.

PAUL OSMAN: And it will deluge an old, archaic stormwater or drainage system, and basements fill up and houses that are nowhere near the floodplain suddenly find themselves underwater.

(SOUNDBITE OF WAVES CRASHING)

CORLEY: Today 8-foot waves are crashing over the bike path at Chicago's lakefront, drenching cyclists and joggers.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIKE BELL RINGING)

CORLEY: Joel Brammeier heads the Alliance for the Great Lakes and says it's typical for water levels to fluctuate, but this extended rise is unusual. He says intense storms lead to more pollution running off into the lakes.

JOEL BRAMMEIER: In western Lake Erie, for example, you're seeing massive blooms of algae that are sometimes toxic to people and pets that are being caused by this concentration of agriculture fertilizer washing off into Lake Erie.

CORLEY: And the runoff from city streets causes pollution problems, too. A forecast from the Army Corps of Engineers shows the Lakes should begin their seasonal decline in the next several weeks. But fall is a very active storm season, and with strong storms churning up lake and river waters, floods, coastal erosion and many problems that come with high water are likely to persist.

Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.

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