that lawless stream

image:  Two views of the Mississippi River. Left: the meander paths of the Mississippi over time, as published in “Geological Investigation of the Alluvial Valley of the Lower Mississippi River” (Fisk, 1944). Right: The Army Corps of Engineers’ view of Mississippi River peak flow rates during a maximum 1-in-500 year “Project Flood” (U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, 1958.) The places outlined in red are where the Corps has built flood control structures capable of diverting a portion of the Mississippi’s flow. (source: weather underground blog)

A wave is making it’s way down the Mississippi from the Ohio river valley to the mighty American river’s delta in Mississippi and Louisiana.  It’s crested at 48 feet, significantly higher than any other crest in history, and the water is moving at 2 million cubic feet per second.  The Army Corp is opening levees and floodwalls built 50 years ago to control the river.  The opened spillways allow water to fill designated flood plains adjacent to the surging river and lower the crest and speed of the deadly wave.

Spillways in play are the New Madrid Floodway in Missouri, the Bonnet Carre spillway in Louisiana just north of New Orleans, and the Morganza spillway just north of Baton Rouge.


In 1987  John McPhee wrote an essay called The Control of Nature about a policy adopted by the US government in the 1920s and implemented soon after by the Army Corps of Engineers.  During this time, the Mississippi river was spilling a larger proportion of its water each successive year westward into the Atchafalaya plain just north of the large gulf cities.  The plain is 50 feet lower than the Mississippi’s river bed and a more direct route – 150 miles shorter – to its final gulf coast destination.  Steeper and shorter are attractive qualities for rivers, apparently; young, meandering rivers look for the easiest route.  And the Mississippi is no exception.

But, at stake were farmers and land and houses and occupations.  Furthermore, and maybe more to the point, many of the biggest names in American industry who had invested huge sums to build their industrial infrastructure along the river in the delta, were also in the diverting river’s path:  B. F. Goodrich, E. I. du Pont, Union Carbide, Shell, Mobil, Texaco, Exxon among other illustrious names.

There were many business advantages to proximity to a river like the Mississippi and the delta region was known as the American Ruhr for obvious reasons.  Building the levees and spillways would ensure that these industries continued to be powerhouse wealth generators for the American south.

And so in their wisdom the legislators decided that to contain the river was the only course of action.  And the Army Corp built a system of controls along the river culminating in the billion dollar Old River control structure which is the 50 year old last defense for the gulf cities of Baton Rouge and New Orleans.


In 1883, Twain wrote Life on the Mississippi.  Here’s what he had to say about the power of the river:

“ten thousand river commissions, with the mines of the world at their back, cannot tame that lawless stream, cannot curb it or define it, cannot say to it Go here, or Go there, and make it obey; cannot save a shore which it has sentenced; cannot bar its path with an obstruction which it will not tear down, dance over, and laugh at.”

It seems Twain threw down a gauntlet, on behalf of the river, over forty years before the congress and the Army Corps began their vanity project:  do what you may, the river will prevail.  And McPhee in The Control of Nature, dusted it off and threw it down again more that 100 years after Twain’s original taunt.  And we’re still waiting on the outcome.

Here are two parallel histories being written, one human and the other geologic.   The human – that  numbers and concrete mixes can postpone surges and save businesses and cities built below sea level – is being written by legislators and engineers in Washington.   Twain and McPhee write the geologic:  that the river will win, and in winning will dance and laugh.

Here is the excerpt from The Control of Nature by John McPhee, published in the New Yorker in 1987:

For the Mississippi to make such a change was completely natural, but in the interval since the last shift Europeans had settled beside the river, a nation had developed, and the nation could not afford nature. The consequences of the Atchafalaya’s conquest of the Mississippi would include but not be limited to the demise of Baton Rouge and the virtual destruction of New Orleans. With its fresh water gone, its harbor a silt bar, its economy disconnected from inland commerce, New Orleans would turn into New Gomorrah. Moreover, there were so many big industries between the two cities that at night they made the river glow like a worm. As a result of settlement patterns, this reach of the Mississippi had long been known as “the German coast,” and now, with B. F. Goodrich, E. I. du Pont, Union Carbide, Reynolds Metals, Shell, Mobil, Texaco, Exxon, Monsanto, Uniroyal, Georgia-Pacific, Hydrocarbon Industries, Vulcan Materials, Nalco Chemical, Freeport Chemical, Dow Chemical, Allied Chemical, Stauffer Chemical, Hooker Chemicals, Rubicon Chemicals, American Petrofina—with an infrastructural concentration equalled in few other places—it was often called “the American Ruhr.” The industries were there because of the river. They had come for its navigational convenience and its fresh water. They would not, and could not, linger beside a tidal creek. For nature to take its course was simply unthinkable. The Sixth World War would do less damage to southern Louisiana. Nature, in this place, had become an enemy of the state.

Rabalais works for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Some years ago, the Corps made a film that showed the navigation lock and a complex of associated structures built in an effort to prevent the capture of the Mississippi. The narrator said, “This nation has a large and powerful adversary. Our opponent could cause the United States to lose nearly all her seaborne commerce, to lose her standing as first among trading nations. . . .We are fighting Mother Nature. . . .It’s a battle we have to fight day by day, year by year; the health of our economy depends on victory.”

The Control of Nature: Atchafalaya, John McPhee

further reading:  America’s Achilles’ heel: the Mississippi River’s Old River Control Structure, Jeff Masters, Weather Underground blog


2 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Some of the ingredients for an epic tale of struggle. I like the maps you’ve included.
One of my favourite songs comes to mind – St Francis Dam Disaster by Frank Black and the Catholics You might like it.

Comment by blackwatertown

Yes maps are cool – from weather underground. Thanks for the video and for reading. I’m enjoying your blog too.

Comment by Peter Rudd

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