Mississippi Rising: Apocalypse Now?


The little known Old River Control Structures (bottom center), a frail line of defense between the raging Mississippi River (top) and a total dislocation of the US economy, by way of the Atchafalaya River (bottom).

The Mississippi River, its tributaries swollen by snowmelt and stormwater, is rising toward a flood level that could equal or exceed anything in its recorded history. The threat to Cairo, Illinois — just above the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers — is so grave that the US Army Corps of Engineers is about to blow up a levee just downstream at Bird’s Point, Missouri, to relieve the flooding in Cairo by deliberately inundating 140,000 acres of farms and towns. The emotional controversy that has arisen over this move obscures a real and rising threat to the economy of the United States.

It seems counterintuitive to blow a levee in the face of a flood, and it is capable of inciting riot to propose to flood farmland to save city blocks, the farm being in one state, the city in another. Tempers are rising. Missouri politicians are demanding that the Corps abandon its plan, and have filed suit in a Federal court to force it to do so. Illinois politicians insist that if the Corps does not act, Cairo will look like New Orleans after Katrina. Yet it has always been the plan of the Corps, which bears responsibility for “managing” and “taming” the mightiest American river, to use Bird’s Point as a floodway in an emergency. The plan is sanctioned by the 1928 Flood Control Act.

But the real threat posed by this historic, gathering flood may well lie several hundred miles to the south, where the Mississippi crosses the Louisiana border. There, as the Corps well knows but dare not discuss, this historic flood threatens to overwhelm one of the frailest defenses industrial humanity has offered to preserve its profits from the immutable processes of nature. This flood has the potential to be a mortal blow to the economy of the United States, and outside the Corp of Engineers virtually no one knows why. I explained it in detail in my book, Brace for Impact: Surviving the Crash of the Industrial Age.


There is an event coming to the Deep South that is as inevitable, and as imminent in geologic time, and as unpredictable in human time, and as dangerous to human life and enterprise, as are the Great California Earthquakes. It is as easy to say as it is hard to imagine: the Mississippi River is going to change course, and when it does will reach the sea 65 miles west of New Orleans, at Morgan City. This meandering of the great river is not at all unusual – it happens frequently in geologic time – and is the process that created the Mississippi River Delta – a 200-mile-wide, three-million-acre arc of coastal wetlands stretching roughly from Lafayette, Louisiana, east to Biloxi, Mississippi. As the river nears the Gulf of Mexico, on the flat coastal plain, the current slows, allowing its massive loads of silt to settle out, creating new wetlands and building up the river bed, which eventually becomes higher than the surrounding area. Eventually the river breaks out, seeks a new and quicker way to the Gulf until the process repeats in about a thousand years.

In the 1950s the Mississippi was ready for another change, exploring in ever greater enthusiasm the Atchafalaya River basin. But this time the river had a new enemy: money. If the river succeeded in doing what it had always done, it would leave high and dry the Port of New Orleans, devastate the city’s economy as well as that of Baton Rouge, cut off nearly 20 per cent of the country’s oil imports and 16 per cent of the nation’s fisheries harvest, and choke off a major outlet for U.S. Agricultural exports. It would leave high and dry a chain of refineries and factories stretching from Baton Rouge to New Orleans that depend for their existence on the barges and the fresh water that the river wants to give to the Atchafalaya. It was, well, unthinkable. The Congress ordered the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to go to war with the Mississippi. “We are fighting Mother Nature,” the Corps declared in a promotional film, “It’s a battle we have to fight day by day, year by year; the health of our economy depends on victory. Our opponent could cause the United States to lose nearly all her seaborne commerce, to lose her standing as first among trading nations.”

The result of this declaration of war was named, with typical Corps hubris, the Old River Control Structures. The Old River was a natural east-west channel that had opened between the Mississippi and Atchafalaya Rivers about 200 miles above New Orleans. By the 1950s, 30 per cent of the Mississippi’s flow was roaring down the steeper, lower Atchafalaya drainage, scouring it ever deeper, getting ready to switch its course entirely. The Corps’ war on water consisted of throwing a dam across the Old River, then building, 10 miles upstream, a 560-foot-long set of 11 floodgates across an artificial channel that henceforth would bend the Father of Waters to the will of the United States Congress. That body declared it illegal for the Mississippi to yield more than 30 per cent of its flow to the Atchafalaya. That is how much it gave up in 1950, and by law, for the Mississippi, it was to be forever 1950. The implementation of the law began in 1963, when the Control Structures took over. It was all part of the Corps of Engineers’ “Mississippi River and Tributaries Project” — the war to end all floods for all time from Cairo, Illinois, to New Orleans.

Ten quiet years followed, for which the Corps took a great deal of credit. Then came a most unquiet year, when a combination of heavy rains in the fall of 1972, heavy winter snow and repeated deluges in the spring of 1973 brought massive flooding. The Corps ran up the white flag and opened all the floodgates at Old River, and still, day after day, the Father of Waters hammered on the bars of its cell, shook the structure as if it were in a Magnitude 8 earthquake, threw nine-ton boulders at it and ate away at its massive foundations. If you stopped a car on top of the control structure (yes, there’s a road – Route 15 – across what you might call the bridge to San Luis Rey, Louisiana) and opened the car door, the vibration of the structure would slam it shut. One of the massive walls that gathered the flow of the Mississippi in to the floodgates collapsed. When the whole thing was a whisker away from total failure, the waters began to recede.

Afterward, the badly frightened engineers of the Corps wondered how close it had been. As John McPhee described one of the more riveting moments in the long history of man’s war on nature:

“As soon as the water began to recede they set about learning the dimensions of the damage. The structure was obviously undermined, but how much so, and where? What was solid, what was not? What was directly below the gates and the roadway? With a diamond drill, in a central position, they bored the first of many holes in the structure. When they had penetrated to basal levels, they lowered a television camera into the hole. They saw fish.”

The Corps propped the structure up, poured more concrete, set more pilings, built even more floodgates (the so-called auxiliary structure, deployed in 1986) and saw it withstand major flooding in 1983, 1993 and 1997. But the river will win this war, and will go to Morgan City, and bring down the Control Structures and with them the economy of the United States. As a study conducted by the Water Resources Research Institute, at Louisiana State University, concluded: “It could happen next year, during the next decade, or sometime in the next thirty or forty years. But the final outcome is simply a matter of time and it is only prudent to prepare for it.”

(More at Mississippi Rising: Update

Also see Mississippi Rising: Act of God or of the Corps?)

[For updates on this and other stories, check out the Editor’s Log.]


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42 Responses to Mississippi Rising: Apocalypse Now?

  1. HB says:

    Why is this not on the FRONT PAGE of every reputable and well-read newspaper-on “breaking news” on television-and computer news?
    Why side-track us with “Royal Weddings” and the newest celeb in rehab?
    Please try to get your info and points known however you can.
    Thank you.

    • Larry Lawson says:

      Thank you for being somewhat honest with me the public, but I believe that all people of this great Nation should know what the citizens of the United States are up against. Whether it be tomorrow or next year, or even 10 years from now. Our country is losing in every way it could lose as a Country. We will soon be nothing more than another Brazil or even worse. We fight all these wars but do we ever get compensated? We all know that answer “NO” well enough is enough. The United States should be compensated for any type of military action we take to help a Nation with no circumstances.

  2. Milwaukee says:

    I’m amazed some enterprising Missouri farmer hasn’t been upstream to examine the levees on the Illinois side, above Cairo, to see how they are holding. You know, just run the boat into the bank, jump out, run to the top, see how things are going. Maybe stick the levee with something sharp and then hustle back to Missouri to report. Cairo has been mostly evacuated, and economically, the Missouri land looks more valuable. The video should be spectacular.

    • Tom Lewis says:

      That’s pretty devious — why I like it — but a main levee at Cairo has already failed, and much of the farmland Missouri wants to protect is already flooded. These things are never simple. But they do yield great television, don’t they?

  3. Mark Laskow says:

    John McPhee devoted a third of his 1990 book, The Control of Nature, to this story. This kind of problem lives in a dangerous blind spot in our public policy/political process.

    • Tom Lewis says:

      Amen. McPhee’s description of them seeing fish under their foundations is one of the most amazing moments in anything I’ve read.

  4. BenJCarter says:

    Very Interesting. Liquid streams shift quite often on a a flat surface, and the fertile plains in the middle of this blessed nation are immense. If this comes to pass so be it. We don’t have as much influence as we think we do…

    I don’t agree shifting resources (ie: moving cheese) will break our backs.

    If the river moves, we will adapt. And resources will shift. That’s how we roll.

    • Tom Lewis says:

      True, given enough time and money. But how long could we go, and how much could we spend, with much of our oil imports, agricultural exports, refinery production and fisheries shut down? And how comfortably?

    • Steve S. says:

      Yep. It’ll take a bit to throw a couple more pipelines across the new delta, redirect the barges to a more circuitous route to the refineries, do a bunch of channel dredging and so forth. Probably drop to 80% refinery production at first – a lot of their raw product comes from overseas, which will be unaffected by the change in the Mississippi river: the refineries are coastal and aren’t going anywhere. But they ought to back to full production inside of three years, depending on how panicky the government gets to fast-track the permits and environmental licenses and such for the new construction works.

      ‘Course there’ll be those who will want to study the new delta / wetlands for the next 60 years, and keep it pristine and away from mankind. They’ll have jobs for the rest of their lives filing suits and organizing protests. But in the end (5 years) they’ll lose.

      • Spartan79 says:

        Of course the US will adjust. But pray imagine the result of all of our refinery capacity in New Orleans and Baton Rough suddenly shut off from access from the Gulf. A very significant chunk of US refinery capacity idled until alternative routing is established? We’ll be looking back fondly on $4.00 per gallon gasoline as the good old days. Think $8.00 a gallon and 12-15% unemployment, comparable inflation rates. The Carter-era Misery Index will return with a vengeance.

        • Ken says:

          12-15% unemployment? U6 will probably be more like 30. Otherwise, I completely agree with Spartan79’s analysis.

  5. Milwaukee says:

    Anybody see video of the Teton Dam failure? Totally awesome. One minute there is dam over 3000 feet long and over 300 feet tall. The bulldozer operator runs for safety, the hole gets bigger, and in less than 2 minutes the dam is gone. Or consider the Silver Lake Dam failure. That scoured out a channel 250 feet wide and 25 feet deep in a very short time. I once heard an above-ground swimming pool repair guy tell me about an above ground pool that sprung a leak with a young teenager in the pool. It washed him through a fence, and through the basement window of the neighbor, and broke both his legs and arms. The young person lived. Even that little amount of water can be really powerful. Would blowing the levee in Missouri be enough to save the Mississippi as is? I doubt it. Too little, too far away.

    • Tom Lewis says:

      You’re probably right. The Corps has been wrong before. But in public life today the rule is that it is a far, far better thing to appear to be doing something, than to actually do something.

    • Subu says:

      The Teton dam seems to be just earth fill .. right ?

      …and the latest dams and embankments are much more than just earth fill …

  6. TS Alfabet says:

    My first reaction is to ponder whether it would be better to let the Mississippi change course and then keep a channel or canal of some sort from the Gulf to New Orleans so it can continue to receive shipping. It has to be easier than a Panama Canal.

  7. AD says:

    “…Cairo, Illinois — just below the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers…”

    Geographically speaking, wouldn’t “just below the confluence” be in either Kentucky of Missouri?

  8. proofreeder says:

    Your quote of the book contains a redundant word “the” in the third sentence.

  9. CptNerd says:

    So, we know the re-routing is inevitable, we know where it’s going to go, we have some time before it does go there, why aren’t we putting in the necessary infrastructure preparations there now? Why aren’t the Morgan City folks raising money leasing out the future Gulf Coast shipping site and raising money to build what’s going to be needed? Or, why isn’t the Federal Government doing something about accommodating the inevitable? Oh, right, that would require foresight, leadership, and spending money we don’t have…

    • dustmouse says:

      And why didn’t this (preparing for the new course) become the plan after Katrina? We have a river that’s changing course and a city in an untenable spot…so we’re throwing endless resources into trying to maintain the status quo. Why do we keep letting the stupid people make the rules?

    • Jor L says:

      Quite simply, South Louisiana is struggling. We’ve been hit by a LOT of devastating hurricanes in this decade alone (though Katrina is the only one remembered), the oil spill issues still haven’t been resolved and are affecting people (and Morgan City is mostly an oil town), and we’re fighting tooth and nail with our governor just to keep from losing hundreds of millions of dollars from higher education. There’s only so much we can do with a paltry sum and bad leadership.

  10. N Palmer says:

    That would be “require foresight, leadership,” cojones, and reallocating the money we do have. Unfortunately, doesn’t exist.

  11. bobby b says:

    Man, I’m tired of the friggin’ doomsdayers who all have some favorite arcane and obscure cataclysmic scenario where, unless we spend eighty-five quatrigazillion dollars on the _______ project by next Monday, the very fabric of our lives will be ripped to shreds forever as we desperately try to survive the collapse of our entire national and local economies!

    Aren’t these the same scamsters who were trying to convince us that if we didn’t
    spend eighty-five quatrigazillion dollars on inspecting and repairing dikes very quickly, a storm was going to breach trillions of dollars worth of massive Army Corp levees and completely submerge New Orleans under the ocean?

    Are we that friggin’ gullible? I mean . . . sheesh!

    • Jim T says:

      Wow. Well, bobby, this isn’t a global warming scam hyped by researchers protecting their funding sources. This event is inevitable. This prediction WILL happen. When it does, will we be ready to deal with it? Or, have the unholy cabal of environmentalists, mainstream media, government hacks and self-serving scientists destroyed our ability to trust anyone?

  12. bobby b says:

    “Your quote of the book contains a redundant word “the” in the third sentence.”

    If you’re not going to commit as to which one is redundant, why even bother to post?

  13. Mike Giles says:

    We are constantly complaining that the US hasn’t built any new refineries in decades. So let the Mississippi go, and build the new refineries along the new Atchafalaya Channel. Just move everything. Talk about a public works project to relieve unemployment, how about the Old Channel Relocation Project.

  14. Milwaukee says:

    So, the explosives are along a 2 mile stretch. Any bets on how long the hole will be after the water runs through? Or how much river levels will go down, before they go back up? What is the water going to do to the inside of the remaining levees? Will the levee be blown, only to have the water level rise again, and Cairo be taken out anyhow?

    Sounds like the plan is to blow it tonight. Any bets on how long before water stops pouring across what was once the levee? Too bad the moon is new, and there won’t be much moon light for video taping.

  15. Jim T says:

    I’m no engineer, but it seems to me that making an assumption that we can merely swap the existing Miss. River channel for a new Atchafalaya one, as some have suggested, is foolishly naive. The refineries around Baton Rouge are built close to the main river, on high ground (Baton Rouge was founded because it sits on high ground). The Atchafalya is a 20-mile wide swamp, as you know if you’ve ever crossed it via I-10. Creating industrial infrastructure to replace what exists along the present channel of the big River will be a long, expensive task – one that would require a great deal of political will to achieve. I don’t believe that it will be a case of picking up a refinery here, and moving it to there. We’re talking about apples and oranges, and the economic and engineering challenges will prove to be staggering, indeed. Can America survive the economic destruction that would be created, and would take so long to overcome? We are already spending more than we are taking in.

  16. Tom Grace says:

    Your facts about the Old River and how it came to be are incorrect. It is not a channel that formed between the Mississippi and the Atchafalaya. It is what remains of a large loop in the Mississippi that was called Turnbull Bend. The Red River flowed into the Mississippi at the northwest point of the loop and the Atchafalaya flowed out at the southwest point. In 1831 Captian Henry M. Shreve cut a canal through the neck of Turnbull Bend to shorten the trip up the Mississippi. This soon widened into the main channel and cut off the loop. The upper half of the loop soon silted in, the Red River was captured by the Atchafalaya, and the lower half of the loop became known as the Old River and flowed ither into or out of the Mississippi depending on the season and levels of the two rivers. There was an immense log jamb on the Atchafalaya dating back to the the late 1700s that was removed during 1839-1840 and from that time on the Atchafalaya gathered more and more of the flow of the Mississippi until the ORCS was constructed to control the flow.

    • Tom Lewis says:

      In condensing the story of the origin, I did leave the above facts out. Thanks for supplying them.

  17. SiGraybeard says:

    Linked back from my little blog. Trying to help get this word out.


  18. Barb says:

    The flood is overwhelming enough,but was the earthquake fault considered when the levy was blown up in New Madrid? When thinking of the amount and weight of the water pressure on the river bottom,the fear struck me. I hope I am wrong!

  19. Sheila says:

    I read John McPhee’s book a couple of years ago. It scared me to death. I’ve been waiting this spring for somebody to mention the Old River structure. And, yes–it should be headlines. –But isn’t.

  20. Curtis Horn says:

    The solution is simple. Divert shipping to Beaumont, Houston, and Galveston. Use rail to move cargo inland. La. will not like this but better than economic bombshell.

  21. Mark Checkley says:

    This process is inevitable because it is in a positive feedback loop. The very actions that are taken to gain repeated stays of execution lead more assuredly to the upcoming deltaic switch (which, without engineering invention, would have taken place in the 1970s). It cannot be stopped, but it can be postponed a decade or so. America should already be taking steps to move critical infrastructure from the current channel to the Atchafalaya basin, whilst “holding the fort” on the Mississipi side. Then, with Morgan City developed to take the commercial role of New Orleans and the Cajun peoples of Atchafalaya in holding camps ready to inhabit – along with their treasured culture – the bayou that the current mainline will become, the nation can choose its moment, blow up the control structures, let the water find its own level, and know that the issue is at rest for another 1000 years. Such an undertaking would be expensive almost beyond calculation, but actually LESS expensive than the ongoing battle, which gets harder to win each year and will absorb exponential resource whilst carrying within it the seends of its own destruction. Start now, planning for controlled deltaic switch in 2025, and there is at least the probability of being able to deal with this in a planned way – else wait until the next major flood, see the control structure washed away (and likely the Morganza also will fail under the load) abd have it all happen without preparation or readiness. That’s the choice.

  22. Steve O says:

    Hear hear to what Mark Checkley says.
    I wrote a longer blog post on that exact same thought.

  23. John Hopkins says:

    Of course this is only ONE example of the principle that humans have bolstered defenses against all sorts of natural flows via technology and the excess energy capacity of hydrocarbons during the last 200 years. As those (largely hydrocarbon) energy (re)sources become less and less available, projects like ORC will become impossible to maintain. This applies to everything from viral infections (temporarily eradicated from human systems) to infrastructure projects large and small! I’d recommend Howard T. Odum’s book “Environment, Power, and Society” (2007 edition) for a primer on how these processes are functioning at all scales in the cosmos INCLUDING human scales. It’s simple thermodynamics (it’s not just a theory, it’s The Law!). My blog at http://neoscenes.net/blog/ covers many of these topics — search on applicable keywords to find more info…