Mississippi Falling: Now What?

The Mississippi River lapped briefly at the edge of Interstate 20 in Vicksburg, Mississippi, and then receded. This time. (US Forest Service photo)

The historic Mississippi River flood of 2011 (or at least, of this far in 2011) is slowly receding now, and the catastrophic failure of the Old River Control Structures, that could have brought the US economy to its knees did not happen. What are we to make of this? But let us ask a different question first: instead of analyzing what did not happen, what are we to make of what did happen?The event has faded from the national news programs. There are no more deep waters on streets for anchor people to wade in, to demonstrate the difficult concept that flood waters rise; there are no more interviews with ruined and displaced people, their grief eventually becomes a downer that loses ratings; there are no compilations of the damages done to all the different states, because, well, it’s just too much work; and besides, there’s Palin’s headless-chicken tour to follow, and Weinergate to giggle about. So forget the news, what are serious people to make of what happened?

That it was historic, perhaps unprecedented in its size and effects is almost irrelevant. Historians seem to disagree on whether it was a once-in-300-years or once-in-500-years event; the reason it doesn’t matter is that what used to be once-in-100-years events are coming at us every couple of years now. The dogmas of the quiet past, as Abraham Lincoln said in another context, are inadequate to the stormy present. There is now no law or rule or scientific principle that says that a flood equal to or greater than this could not happen next year, or for that matter later this year. So one major lesson we should all take away from this event is: get used to it, there’s more to come.

The human misery imposed by this event should never be far from our minds. The loss of life, the loss of homes, the ruination of livelihoods, will take their toll on the people affected for lifetimes. And the dollar value of the damage inflicted will add an enormous new burden not only for people but for local, state and federal governments already desperately short of money and credit. Add this misery to that caused by this spring’s tornadoes and wildfires, to the millions unable for years to find work because of the economic meltdown, and you have to ask: how much misery can a country stand? And how much misery can a country stand without any discussion of it by its governors or journalists?

Over time, the flood will affect something we in the US are not accustomed to worrying about: the food supply. High food prices and low food supplies are already exacting a terrible toll on the world’s poor, but thus far pose only an annoyance to the rich industrialized countries, who continue to think and act as though their end of the Titanic is not sinking. But the situation, for everyone, is worsening fast. When a better-than-normal harvest was forecast for this year in the United States, experts were worried sick that supplies would so closely match demand, after the harvest, that reserves would be at historic lows. Since those forecasts were made, in addition to the Southwest drought, the Texas and Arizona wildfires and the wet, cold spring in the upper Midwest, we now have the Mississippi flood.

“From about Missouri south along the river, we had about 3.5, 3.6 million acres of crop land that were affected,” according to Bob Young, chief economist for the American Farm Bureau Federation. He says crop insurance will cover most losses, and good weather this summer could still turn things around for many growers, so he says it’s too early to tell if there will be a significant impact on the agricultural economy. Note that his concern is exclusively for the economic well-being of the farmers, not for the needs of the eventual consumers of the food that will not be there.

Lastly, the flood afflicted the Gulf of Mexico with a plume of toxic silt that will drastically expand the semi-permanent dead zone, already the size of Rhode Island, in which nothing can live. This is not the flood’s fault, the zone is dead because of the wasted chemicals of industrial agriculture,

Now, about what did not happen: The Mississippi River did not permanently change course into the Atchafalaya River, as it has been trying to do for half a century, thus crippling the Port of New Orleans and most of the refineries, factories, agricultural shippers, importers and exporters from Baton Rouge south to the Gulf. Outside of the immediate area of the Old River Control Structures, built by the US Army Corps of Engineers to prevent the change, few people were even aware of the danger. The readers of The Daily Impact and of Dr. Jeff Masters’s blog on www.wunderground.com (he called the Structures “America’a Achilles Heel”) did know about it.

What to make of this non-event? First, and least important, it occasions no disappointment here, nor would its happening have been a source of any satisfaction. Contrary to what some commenters have said, there is implied by an explanation of danger no prediction that the worst will happen. When a parent cautions teenaged children about the dangers of driving, the warning is not a prediction of their injury, but a plea for them to comprehend the danger and take precautions.

Still, the worst could happen. A teenager who takes each successive safe return from a night of drunken driving as evidence of decreased danger would have a short life expectancy. Yet it is common to hear that people are not worred about, say, an eathquake in California “because they’ve been predicting it for years and it never happens.” The reality is, of course, that every year it does not happen increases the odds that it will happen in the next five minutes.

And so the Mississippi did not change course this time. It built up its bed a little higher above its surroundings than it was before; it explored but did not exploit weaknesses in some dams and levees that it did not broach this time; it tested the defenses of its enemy, the Corps of Engineers, and then it retreated. But as army engineers know, there are two kinds of retreat, and one of them is strategic. There will be a next time.

[For updates of this and other Daily Impact stories and issues, see “The Editor’s Log.”]

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4 Responses to Mississippi Falling: Now What?

  1. Rex Stevens says:

    The odds of the structure failing now, since it didn’t fail this last month, don’t increase at all anymore than the odds of tossing a “heads” increases each time you toss a “tails.” If it is now more likely for the structure to breach, it not not because the odds changed, but because the structure was weakened once again by the unexpected stresses. I think, though, that any of us can “predict” that the structure will likely fail. It is much, much more likely to fail than for the apocalypse to occur on October 21st. You provide a much needed perspective on what’s going on in the world. Thanks so much.

    • Tom Lewis says:

      You’re right, of course, about the odds of the structure failing. I was thinking about the odds of the river changing course, which are steadily being increased by many factors, just as the strain that eventually causes an earthquake accumulates constantly. Thank you for your good thoughts.

  2. John Walker says:

    How much of the rising Missouri River will the Mississippi River be able to hold as it heads down stream? Can we expect a renewed rise in the Mississippi later this summer?

    • Tom Lewis says:

      Remarkably, no. The National Weather Service says that despite the record flows from the Missouri, the Mississippi will continue to fall unless there is a major rain event.