Mighty Mississippi

July 20, 1993

"Man will never, ever control this river. . . never. You might as well get used to it. Eventually levees burst. This in no ordinary river, you know. It does what it wants, whenever it wants."

River people, like Ted Blaylock who is quoted above, understand this basic fact of nature. His family has farmed along the rich Missouri bottomland of the Mississippi River since the 19th century. No levee or other form of flood protection can harness what Native Americans called the "Father of Waters" when it is swollen by massive amounts of rain, as is happening now.

Weather forecasters are crossing their fingers and predicting that the worst may have passed. That doesn't mean the dangers are over. Much of the 2,400-mile-long Mississippi won't return to normal levels until next month. More rain may fall. Twenty million acres of Midwestern farmland have been adversely affected; 8 million acres remain under water.

Yet this is not a once-in-a-century occurrence. The Mississippi overflows regularly. In the past 80 years, it has averaged one bad flood every 10 years. Since 1927, the Army Corps of Engineers has tried to tame the river with reservoirs and levees -- 3,600 miles of them, the most extensive system in the world. This has helped shelter the bottomland and turned it into productive and fertile farmland. But the levees also exacerbated the flood of '93.

Once the Mighty Mississippi subsides and the 30,000 residents return to their small towns and farms, a new debate will rage over a decades-old question: how best to protect man from the ravages of the river. All these miles of levees constrict the river and increase the speed and height of the flood waters. Most of the natural defenses against floods have been stripped away.

No one wants to tear down the levees. The Mississippi serves as a mighty ribbon of commerce for this nation. But there are ways to reduce the level of damage from these floods.

For instance, federal engineers could move levees away from the river, thus giving the Mississippi more room to spread out when it floods. Some of the wetlands near the river's edge should be restored. Wetlands act as natural sponges, soaking up much of the excess water during floods. Farms in floodplains should not be eligible for flood insurance -- in many parts of the country, development on flood-prone areas is forbidden.

There is no absolute protection against natural disasters. That's why the Ted Blaylocks along the Mississippi have such a healthy respect for the river. Once the rebuilding begins, federal officials ought to concentrate on mitigating the severity of future floods. That's the best we can hope for: the Father of Waters will continue to overflow its banks, just as it has always done.

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