It has been abnormally hot this spring throughout the south. A number of states have seen three times the normal amount of rain. But along with the downpours, there have been droughts and wildfires. Then came the tornadoes in all time record numbers that killed at least 309 people and caused massive destruction. Insurance losses are now projected to exceed $6 billon, with a similar amount for homes that were either under insured, or not insured at all.
The heavy spring rains have been incessant up and down the river, and there are projections for more Midwest thunderstorms later on this week. And all this water has, over the years, been channeled in tight levee systems that are right now under massive pressure. Author John Barry, who has been a guest on my radio show on several occasions, documented the dangers of flooding on the Mississippi in his award winning book, “Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi river Flood of 1927 and How it Changed America.” I asked him about his concerns today. “I know the power of this river, and quite frankly it makes me nervous to see this much water on the move,” he says
Barry also points out that “there will be a lot of backwater flooding going up rivers that are normally tributaries flowing into the Mississippi. They won’t be able to empty into the Mississippi, so the main line River will back up these streams causing a great deal of additional flooding.”
I know his scenario well from living through back water problems during the 1973 flood, where water levels reached their highest point to date. I was a newly elected state senator in Louisiana living right on the Mississippi in Ferriday, across the river from Natchez, Mississippi. I could go up on my roof and see across the main line levee as the waters continued to rise.
The water got so high that the Red and Black Rivers in that area that it began to back up, flooding many communities throughout my district. Some towns, like Jonesville, were surrounded by water and local residents had to get to and from their homes by boat. At the lower end of Catahoula Parish (other states have counties, but in Louisiana they are called parishes), some homes were buried under twenty-five feet of water.
When the river along the mainline levee came within four feet of overtopping, the local sheriff emptied the jails putting prisoners to work filling sandbags to build up the levees. For four days, I occasionally catnapped while working alongside neighbors and prisoners as we tried to raise the levee with sand. When the river finally crested, there was a little over a foot to spare that kept the Mighty Mississippi from pouring into our neighborhoods and destroying our homes.
Fast forward 38 years and the river levels look to be even higher and the flooding worse. Some three million acres will go under water in Louisiana alone, and almost half of the parishes here have been declared disaster areas. The River is approaching dangerous heights right now, yet the projected crest in Louisiana is not until May 23.
There are three major spillways along the river in Louisiana, and each has floodgates that can be opened to divert the raging waters. Opening these gates lessens the chance of flooding many inhabited areas, but the process is not a panacea. The millions of tons of sediment in the waters that are diverted will wipe out any crops in the water’s path along with many homes.
Roy Dokka, a professor of civil and environmental engineering and director of the Center for Geoinformatics at Louisiana State University, says Louisiana farmers are in for a long hoe. “Any existing crops are going to be toast when you look at the damage caused to corn, sugar cane and soybeans that will be covered with sediment,” he stated. “Plus, God knows what’s in the water and what gets deposited.”
And what if the levees collapse as they did during Katrina? “That’s the worst case scenario,” says Dokka. “If levees break, weeks could pass before engineers could reseal them. If wide-scale flooding occurs, the resulting economic damage will be felt for years, he said. “Any city that ever floods never really returns economically to where it once was because people don’t have confidence, people don’t want to put businesses there. New Orleans is the big example.”
So the south is taking on Mother Nature with a wing and a prayer. Living in this part of the country is a gamble that has consequences. Newman’s lyrics for a flood 84 years ago could just as well apply to what many residents who live along the Mississippi are facing right now, as each day passes.
The river rose all day
The river rose all night
Some people got lost in the flood
Some people got away alright
They're tryin' to wash us away
They're tryin' to wash us away
Peace and Justice
Jim Brown’s syndicated column appears each week in numerous newspapers and websites throughout the South. You can read all his past columns and see continuing updates at www.jimbrownusa.com. You can also hear Jim’s nationally syndicated radio show each Sunday morning from 9 am till 11:00 am, central time, on the Genesis Radio Network, with a live stream at http://www.jimbrownusa.com.