Series Blog

Did We Cause the Flood?

Heavy snow and rain this past winter and spring have led to massive flooding of the Mississippi River Valley in 2011, devastating populated areas along the river's path and causing millions of dollars in damage. Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska, and Tennessee are just a few states that have been affected by the flooding, displacing thousands of people across the South and Midwest. Over the past several weeks, the Army Corps of Engineers has destroyed levees along the Mississippi River to direct excess water away from more densely populated areas and into flood lands.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been attempting to control the flooding of the Mississippi River since the late 1800s when the government first commissioned them to build levees, the earthen embankments designed to raise a river's banks. While the levees do help prevent flooding, they also narrow the flow of a river, causing the water level to rise more quickly and increasing the river's flow rate -- a potentially dangerous combination.

The greatest tragedy involving the failure of levees is the subject of the AMERICAN EXPERIENCE documentary Fatal Flood. In 1927, record precipitation caused the worst recorded flood in U.S. history. The Mississippi river rose almost 50 feet, easily washing the levees away. The water inundated communities, destroying 16 million acres of land in Missouri, Mississippi and Louisiana. By the time the water receded, 500 people were dead and 600,000 were left homeless. Following the flood, levees were rebuilt and a system of spillways and tributaries were designed and constructed to handle future flooding along the Mississippi River.

Over 80 years later, 3,500 miles of levees line the Mississippi, and these systems are currently being tested. The enormous amount of rainwater and snow melt pouring into the Mississippi this year has been presenting a serious hazard to cities and towns along the banks of the river. Should the Mississippi flow unhindered, experts worry that levees downstream could overflow or even break, to lethal effect. To avoid this, the Army Corps of Engineers has blown up levees in Illinois and Missouri and opened large spillways in Mississippi, intentionally flooding wetlands and other less populated areas.

While several local officials have complained about the Corps' methods, others believe they used the most effective options available. There is no newer technology than levees to control the flooding of the Mississippi River. Several scientists have stated the only way to prevent such damaging floods is by relocating people away from the river's natural flood plain -- a method used successfully in Napa, California's "living river" project. In place of levees, areas of the riverbank would return to wetlands and flood plains.

Other Americans wonder if a new technology could be developed that could control our rivers.

While technology introduced after the record flood of 1927 helped the U.S. avoid a disaster of that magnitude in 2011, there is still widespread destruction across the Mississippi River Valley. What do you think are the most viable alternatives to avoid a similar disaster in the future? 


Bianca Wythe is a student at Northeastern University and is currently an intern at AMERICAN EXPERIENCE. 

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