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InterviewsJohn M. Barry

Great Projects: The Building of America

INT: Jadwin did seem to come up with a plan that worked to some degree.

JB: Yeah. The flood control plan that the Corps of Engineers put in after the '27 flood is basically what's in place today, with some adjustments. And, of course, Jadwin didn't write the plan. In fact, he had a very sharp engineer who had been in the Corps, but actually was then a civilian -- he had a physical disability that forced him to retire from the Army -- who wrote the plan. And it was a good plan, you know, once they gave up the hypothesis of levees-only. You know, there were a couple of gaps in it and there were some political problems with it -- chiefly, in effect, the plan would have allowed the flooding of the State of Arkansas and Louisiana, essentially using that as a natural reservoir. Originally the levees in Arkansas were going to be lower than the levees on the Mississippi side, so the river would naturally flood in Arkansas. That was ultimately taken care of by what was then a very controversial policy called cut-offs. The river moves like a dollar sign, in S's. And a cut-off is like the straight line through a dollar sign. It straightens the river and, therefore, it carries more water faster. But there were a lot of people who thought cut-offs were not going to work. And, in fact, they've worked pretty well, not perfectly. They shorten the river by 150 miles in total, and that lowered the flood plain in Greenville, Mississippi, for example, by 15 feet, which is an enormous lowering. That was initially. Now since the cut-offs have been put in, the river has regained probably one-third of that length and some of the lowering of the flood plains -- some of those benefits have been lost. And ultimately the river will probably regain all the length. And then you make more cut-offs, I guess.

INT: What's the biggest flaw with the Jadwin plan?

JB: I don't think the Jadwin plan--and let's talk about Project Flood, which is not the same thing as the Jadwin plan -- the Corps currently calls it Project Flood. I don't think the plan itself is flawed. I think the question is how much water can it accommodate. And the figure that Army engineers used for the 1927 Flood is lower than the figure that most civilian engineers used for the 1927 Flood, in fact, a lot lower, more than 500,000 cubic feet a second. And, to give you a sense of how much water that is in a flood, Niagara Falls is 200,000 cubic feet a second. So you're talking about a difference, not total amount to water in the river, just a difference between the two estimates of two-and-half the amount of water going over Niagara Falls. And the Project Flood has a margin of error over the lower figure for the '27 flood. But even with the margin of error, if it works as designed, it's not going to handle as much water as the civilians said was in the river in 1927. This was up at the mouth of the Arkansas. So even if it works perfectly, if you get that much water again at that spot, you're going to have an extraordinary disaster that might be bigger than '27. On the other hand, the Army might have been right. It might have been the lower figure, and that might have been a 10,000-year flood or a 20,000-year flood. We don't know.

INT: What about the Achapalaya, trying to capture that?

JB: Well, the Achapalaya is obviously a major problem, and the Army is doing, I think, as well as anybody could do there. It's an extraordinary complex issue, handling the sediment load whether or not you're going to silt up the entire swamp, whether or not the Mississippi River is going to continue to flow past Baton Rouge and New Orleans or shift down the Achapalaya. There are a lot of people who think that the river is ultimately going to go where it wants to go. There are others who think that they can hold it in place, or even if it shifts down there in some major flood, during the next low water they may be able to recapture it and send it down the present channel.

INT: Describe the power of the Mississippi River in a flood mode.

JB: There's really nothing like the rising Mississippi. It's just an extraordinary force. I mean you can look out on the surface and even on the surface it won't look the same in two different spots. You can see sometimes it's almost as if a whirlpool is trying to form. You'll see the level of the water at one spot, you know, six inches, maybe a foot, sometimes more than that, higher than the water level not far away. And there's not one current in the river. There's a current on the surface, many currents on the surface. There's different current ten feet down, 20 feet down, 30 feet down, friction with the riverbank, friction with the river bottom. The last several hundred miles the bottom of the river's actually below sea level. So it's got no reason to flow at all. It's only the force of the water pushing behind it and the force of the water on top that's sort of rolling over it like an ever- breaking wave that keeps the river moving. And when the currents are -- I mean in flood -- you can get a sustained current of 13 feet per second -- that's almost nine miles an hour. So you've got a force that can be well over a mile wide, hundred, hundred and fifty feet deep, and close to 200 feet in New Orleans, moving at nine miles an hour. I mean if you can imagine that, it's -- it's you know, literally an awful thing to look at in the in the literal sense, full of awe.

INT: What's the force comparable to?

JB: Well, it can attack a buzz saw and rip right through it. And less true today because of various protections on the riverbank and so forth but in its natural state it would just take acres of the river bank in one shot -- the trees, you would hear them crack. It would sound like cannons firing one after another as a tree snapped. And, of course, the river actually made all the land from Cape Girardo, Missouri to the Gulf of Mexico. It owns that land. It created that land by depositing sediment upon it. So that natural flood plain in the Mississippi is 34,000 square miles. The river has -- the mouth of the river has been as far east as the State of Mississippi and as far west almost to Texas. It just goes back and forth. And, as I say, it created all that land. It owns that land. Going back to the levees-only theory, the idea that man could contain that force within a couple of mounds of earth is just ludicrous.

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