A River Runs Through It

SUN JOURNAL

April 27, 2001|BY A SUN STAFF WRITER

It's the largest river in North America, rising in Minnesota and flowing 2,350 miles south to the Gulf of Mexico.

Along the way, in spring or early summer, the Mississippi River is prone to overflowing its banks.

A warm spell in early spring that quickly melts snow in Canada can amplify the floods. So can heavy spring rains. So can rains in early summer. At this time of year, from March to June, the runoff from snowmelt meets the rains, and every tributary swells, and the river challenges its banks and the levees expensively built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The river crested Wednesday at Davenport, Iowa, at 22.3 feet, its third highest recorded level, and the water was slowly dropping yesterday. A second crest might occur within the next few days and, in some areas, be even higher. It could be several weeks before the river returns to normal levels.

In modern times, the most devastating flood occurred in 1927. The river's flow that spring, as chronicled by John M. Barry in "Rising Tide: the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How it Changed America," was three times greater than that during the great Mississippi flood of 1993.

"The roaring Mississippi river, bank and levee full from St. Louis to New Orleans, is believed to be on its mightiest rampage," the Memphis Commercial Appeal warned in April 1927. "All along the Mississippi considerable fear is felt over the prospects for the greatest flood in history."

Hundreds of people drowned. Whole towns were submerged; in Mississippi, thousands of people camped for weeks atop the levees. The Great Flood accelerated the migration of African-Americans from Mississippi to northern states, contributed to the decline of the sharecropping system and forced authorities to rethink their strategies for taming the river.

For the past 70-odd years, the strategies have included the digging of "cutoffs" that divert the river from its own sharp bends, construction of more than 1,600 miles of levees, and construction of spillways.

They work most of the time - but not every spring.

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