mississippi river

The Mississippi River is a is the widest river in the United States. It’s mere size and the amount of water in it, makes one expect that at some point, it is going to flood. In fact, it has flooded many times over the years, but none was anything like the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. It was the most destructive river flood in the history of the United States. In all, 27,000 square miles of land were inundated with water up to a 30 feet depth. In all, 630,000 people were affected by the flood. About 94% of them lived in the states of Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana, most in the Mississippi Delta. At least 15 inches of rain fell in 18 hours causing the Mississippi River to brake out of its levee system at 145 locations. Ten states were affected…Arkansas, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Tennessee, Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas. Arkansas was the worst affected with 14% of the state flooded.

It was Good Friday, April 15, 1927, the disaster began when 15 inches of rain fell in New Orleans in 18 hours. More than 4 feet of water covered parts of the city. A group of influential bankers in town met to discuss how to guarantee the safety of the city, as they had already learned of the massive scale of flooding upriver. A few weeks after, they arranged to set off about 30 tons of dynamite on the levee at Caernarvon, in an effort to flood a less populated area and save the cities that would have been severely damaged. I’m not sure how much this effort helped, and in the end, about 500 people lost their lives anyway. It wouldn’t be the last Mississippi River flood, but it would be the worst.

As a result of the flooding, many of the misplaced people joined the Great Migration from the south to northern and midwestern industrial cities rather than return to rural agricultural labor. I would think that the idea of such a massive amount of cleanup would be more than many people could take. This massive population movement increased from World War II until 1970. Of course, this volume of population movement would not be good for the states who were losing people. To try to prevent future floods, the federal government built the world’s longest system of levees and floodways. By August 1927, when the flood subsided, hundreds of thousands of people had been made homeless and displaced; properties, livestock and crops were destroyed. Flooding on the Mississippi is not an unusual event, and no matter how many precautions we take, there will still be losses when the river overflows its banks.

As a kid, I remember that whenever we were sitting at an intersection that was very busy, causing us to have to wait seemingly forever to be able to get across the intersection, one of my parents would say something like, “Wow!! Who opened the floodgates?” Of course, I didn’t know what a floodgate was then, and I just thought they were referring to a flood of vehicles, which they were, and they probably didn’t think about what a real floodgate was either. It was just a funny saying to us, but in reality, a floodgate is a very important flood preventative tool. I guess that our version of floodgates meant the same thing, except in vehicles and not in water.

On May 15, 2011, the United States Army Corps of Engineers opened the floodgates in the state of Louisiana along the Mississippi river. This was an effort to save larger cities located along the Mississippi, like Baton Rouge and New Orleans, from flooding. The Mississippi was already heading for critical stages, and it was only expected to get worse. The flooding was expected to cover up to three thousand square miles, and it had the potential to affect up to 25,000 people. This was the first time in forty years that the river levels have forced the opening of the floodgates. I don’t know how often floodgates are utilized in other areas to prevent flooding, but when people live in flood prone areas, they have to use whatever mean necessary to protect themselves and their property from damage and death.

The Mississippi River floods in April and May 2011 were among the largest and most damaging recorded along that river in the past century. The flood was comparable in extent to the major floods of 1927 and 1993. From April 14–16, the storm system that was responsible for one of the largest tornado outbreaks in US history also produced large amounts of rainfall across the southern and midwestern United States. Then two more storm systems, each with heavy rain and tornadoes, hit in the third week of April. In the fourth week of April, from April 25–28, another and even more extensive and deadly storm system passed through the Mississippi Valley dumping more rainfall resulting in deadly flash floods. The unprecedented extensive rainfall from these four storms, combined with springtime snow melt from the Upper Midwest, created the perfect conditions for a 500-year flood along the Mississippi.

The purpose of opening the floodgates was to take some of the pressure off of the levees, in the hope of preventing the breech of the levees. Most of the time, it works pretty well, like when the city of Casper, Wyoming, where I live opens up the gates at the area lakes and while the river runs high for a time, there are very few places where it spills over the bank. Unfortunately, the Mississippi river still spilled over its banks, and broke levees. I don’t think anyone could have really prevented the monster floods that hit the area in 2011, or even in 1927 or 1933, but they couldn’t focus on that right then, because they had to do whatever they could to prevent. In the end, the flood came and the damage was done.

When a river is as wide as the Mississippi, and traveling through so many states, often through flat land, the potential for flooding always exists. I know that many people who live along the Mighty Mississippi, would never consider living anywhere else. They love that old river, and having been there myself, I can certainly understand why. The river views are beautiful. Still, the yearly potential for flooding is something that might put many people off, when it comes to living on the shores of that river. Of course, people can get flood insurance, and indeed, most banks would require it for properties along that river, but the possessions lost in floods, not to mention the time it takes to rebuild the homes, and especially the lives lost in floods, make living on the shores of the Mississippi something that I would probably not decide to do.

The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 was the most destructive river flood in the history of the United States, with 27,000 square miles inundated up to a depth of 30 feet. To try to prevent future floods, the federal government built the world’s longest system of levees and floodways. Of the more than 630,000 people affected by the flood, 94% lived in the states of Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana, most in the Mississippi Delta. By August 1927, the flood subsided. Hundreds of thousands of people had been made homeless and displaced…properties, livestock and crops were destroyed. Some people left the area, because they did not have the money, or the stomach for living in an area where their homes could so easily be wiped out. Still, the draw of the beautiful Mississippi kept many people there, determined to rebuild their lives. Of course, the flood didn’t only affect the people living along the Mississippi. Lost crops affected many people in the United States. It was a disaster of epic proportions.

Then came the floods of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers in 1993, also known as the Great Flood of 1993. This is one that many of us alive today remember, mostly because we were old enough to remember, but also because the television and newspapers were filled with the stories of destruction. The flood was among the most costly and devastating to ever occur in the United States, with $15 billion in damages. The damage area was more than 745 miles in length and 435 miles in width, totaling about 320,000 square miles. Within this zone, the flooded area totaled around 30,000 square miles and was the worst such US disaster since the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, as far as duration, area flooded, persons displaced, crop and property damage, and number of record river levels. In some ways, the 1993 flood even surpassed the 1927 flood, which was, at the time, the largest flood ever recorded on the Mississippi River. The effects were felt by people all over the United States because of crops lost, the rise in the cost of building materials, and of course, insurance rates as a result of increased building material prices. Floods are nearly impossible to prevent, and for some people they are considered a risk they are willing to take, but for me, I think I’ll stick to places where the chance of a flood hitting my home is almost nil. On October 7, 1993, the Great Flood of 1993 came to an end as the Mississippi River finally started to recede, 103 days after the flooding began.

Most people know that with an earthquake underwater, comes the possibility of a tsunami. Tsunamis can cause as much or more damage that the original earthquake. I think we all know that living in a coastal area puts the residents in possible danger when these offshore earthquakes hit, but what happens further inland? The tsunami doesn’t normally travel too far inland…unless it is a fluvial tsunami. This was a type of tsunami I had never heard of before. Nevertheless, on this day, February 7, 1812, there was a series of earthquakes in Missouri. They were the most violent and powerful quakes in the history of the United States. The series of tremors, which took place between December 1811 and March 1812. The Seismic activity was quite unusual for the area around the city of New Madrid, located near the Mississippi River in present day Arkansas, which had about 1,000 residents at the time, most of whom were farmers, hunters, and fur trappers. It all began on December 15, 1811with unusual tremors. Then, at 7:15am, an even more powerful quake erupted, now estimated to have been an 8.6 magnitude quake. This quake literally knocked people off their feet and many people experienced nausea from the extensive rolling of the earth. Given that the area was sparsely populated and there weren’t many multi-story structures, the death toll was relatively low. However, the quake did cause landslides that destroyed several communities, including Little Prairie, Missouri.

The quake also caused fissures…some as much as several hundred feet long…to open on the earth’s surface. Large trees were snapped in two. Sulfur leaked out from underground pockets and river banks vanished, flooding thousands of acres of forests. On January 23, 1812, an estimated 8.4-magnitude quake struck in nearly the same location, causing disastrous effects. Reportedly, the president’s wife, Dolley Madison, was awoken by the quake in Washington, DC. The death toll was smaller for this quake, because most of the survivors of the first earthquake were now living in tents, so they could not be crushed. The strongest of the tremors followed on February 7, 1812, and was estimated at an amazing 8.8 magnitude…probably one of the strongest quakes in human history. Church bells rang thousands of miles away in Boston, Massachusetts, from the shaking. Brick walls were toppled in Cincinnati, Ohio. In the Mississippi River, water turned brown and whirlpools developed suddenly from the depressions created in the riverbed. Waterfalls were created in an instant and in one report, 30 boats were helplessly thrown over falls, killing the people on board. Many of the small islands in the middle of the river, often used as bases by river pirates, permanently disappeared…possibly a poetic end to their crimes. Large lakes, such as Reelfoot Lake in Tennessee and Big Lake at the Arkansas-Missouri border, were created by the earthquake as river water poured into new depressions in the ground. But, probably the most unusual activity, was what happened to the Mississippi River next. Because of the quake’s proximity to the Mississippi River, the quake had an effect that was probably unheard of until that time…a Fluvial Tsunami. A Fluvial Tsunami is something I never knew existed, but apparently it does. The quake and the ensuing fluvial tsunami in the Mississippi River, actually made the river run backward for several hours. I’m sure people were stunned and frightened at what they saw.

The exact death toll from this series of deadly quakes is difficult to determine because of a lack of an accurate record of the Native American population in the area at the time. The series of quakes ended in March of 1812, with aftershocks continuing for years. In the end, it was decided that approximately 1,000 people died because of the quakes, but it could be much higher. As I researched this crazy tsunami, I found out that fluvial refers to a river tsunami, the Mississippi River has actually flowed backward multiple times, and fluvial tsunamis are actually not that rare, they occur whenever a quake causes the water in a river to flow backward it rush in is normal direction.

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