Mississippi Rising: Is it Over Yet?

Maj. Gen. Michael Walsh, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Mississippi Valley Division Commander, explains to the news media on May 9 what the Mississippi River will be allowed to do during the flood of 2011. As the map clearly shows, it will be permitted to move only in straight lines. (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers photo)

The headline in USA Today yesterday read: “Mississippi Flooding Redeems Army Corps.”  Also yesterday, a Daily Impact commenter (a troll with no cogent argument, so you will not read the rest of his rant here) asked: “Don’t you get tired of predicting disasters that never happen?” Hard to know where to start, but let’s try here:

  • How can the Corps be redeemed for handling an emergency that is only about halfway through its course?
  • Warning of danger, and quoting authoritative people describing what could happen, is not the same thing as “predicting disasters.”

Let’s take another look at the Mississippi situation.

The first story about the rising flood in The Daily Impact, on April 28 (Mississippi Rising: Apocalypse Now?) raised the question of whether the flooding river might overwhelm the Old River Control Structures, change its lower course, and deal a crippling blow to the economy of the United States. That question has not yet been resolved, because the waters are still rising at the Control Structures. There was no prediction here that it will happen this year, but there is certainty among those who study the river and don’t work for the Corps that it will happen one day.

Assume for a moment that it does not happen, and all remains well with the Control Structures, and the flood of 2011 turns out not to be apocalyptic. It will still be catastrophic. Among its effects thus far — and we are not yet halfway through it:

  • It has made refugees of more than 5,000 people in five states.
  • It has inundated more than 2 million acres of farmland (which aside from the destruction of structures would be a good thing — periodic flooding is, after all, how the ground became so fertile in the first place — but this is industrial water, laden with excess nutrients and pesticides washed from chemical-drenched fields). The flood has killed the crops already growing and made impossible the seeding of new ones this year, and maybe next. Already this week, wheat prices are up 28 cents a bushel, corn up 23 cents a bushel and soybeans up 15 cents a bushel.
  • It will likely kill the oysters in coastal Louisiana waters that survived the BP oil spill; they can’t tolerate fresh water and they can’t move. Shrimp and crabs can and will move, out to sea where they are far more dispersed and difficult to harvest.
  • It has already moved so much silt that 21 harbors along the river will have to be dredged, as well as the channel from Baton Rouge to New Orleans.
  • Its silt will also expand the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, which is an area so bereft of oxygen because of the nutrient-laden silt that nothing lives in it. Last year it was the size of New Jersey.
  • After all the other damages have been dealt with, a Corps of Engineers spokesman says the entire flood protection system will have to be “reset.” Without any idea what that might involve, we can presume it will be hideously expensive.
  • Oh, and lest we forget: Mississippi may lose $13 million a month in taxes and thousands of jobs because 17 of the state’s 19 riverfront casinos have had to close.

Bad is it is, does the Corps deserve praise, as USA Today concludes, for keeping it from being worse? Well, we can’t blame the Corps for going to war with the Mississippi, because it was ordered to do so by Congress. While there are a hundred ways in which that was a disastrous decision, to be fair to the Corps we would have to appraise how well it is doing what it was ordered to do.

And when we do that, we have to conclude that it is doing pretty well. So far. Its decisions to open all three floodways in their system generated controversy, but was clearly required, both by the situation and by the Congressionally-mandated and -legislated plan put in place a half-century and more ago. Thus far the Corps-built levees have held (although the longevity of the high waters poses almost as much a threat to them as the height, and thus the danger of failure will persist for weeks). But to call the Corps “redeemed,” as USA Today wants to do, is to go far beyond that limited approval and suggest that it has always been right, and that its mission is just.

That is hardly the case. By putting the river in a strait jacket, preventing regular, nourishing river-bottom floods, accelerating wetland loss by excessive channeling and by putting the needs of industry above every other consideration, the Corps may have done what it was asked to do, but in doing so did great harm for which the bills will eventually come due.

And there are those who are not even that charitable toward the Corps. Robert Criss, a professor of earth and planetary sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, told the New York Times (watch out for the pay wall) the Corps has “dangerously underestimated” flooding potential along the Mississippi, promoting risky flood-plain development and pushing the National Flood Insurance Program to the brink. In 2008, Criss studied the history of the Corps’ flood projections at various points along the Mississippi and found a 99.9 percent chance that they were incorrect. Flood frequency projections across the entire system, he said, are off by a factor of 10, meaning that 100-year flood events should be reclassified as 10-year events.

The Mississippi River flood of 2011 is a slow-moving beast, and the ADHD media want it to be over so they can do their on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand wrapups and move along. But this disaster is far from over. And yes, that’s a prediction.


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