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Mississippi River Tragedies

Mississippi River Tragedies: A Century of Unnatural Disaster

CHRISTINE A. KLEIN
SANDRA B. ZELLMER
Copyright Date: 2014
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 276
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt9qfnxx
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  • Book Info
    Mississippi River Tragedies
    Book Description:

    American engineers have done astounding things to bend the Mississippi River to their will: forcing one of its tributaries to flow uphill, transforming over a thousand miles of roiling currents into a placid staircase of water, and wresting the lower half of the river apart from its floodplain. American law has aided and abetted these feats. But despite our best efforts, so-called natural disasters continue to strike the Mississippi basin, as raging floodwaters decimate waterfront communities and abandoned towns literally crumble into the Gulf of Mexico. In some places, only the tombstones remain, leaning at odd angles as the underlying soil erodes away.A Century of Unnatural Disasterreveals that it is seductively deceptive - but horribly misleading - to call such catastrophes natural.Authors Christine A. Klein and Sandra B. Zellmer present a sympathetic account of the human dreams, pride, and foibles that got us to this point, weaving together engaging historical narratives and accessible law stories drawn from actual courtroom dramas. The authors deftly uncover the larger story of how the law reflects and even amplifies our ambivalent attitude toward nature - simultaneously revering wild rivers and places for what they are, while working feverishly to change them into something else. Despite their sobering revelations, the authors' final message is one of hope. Although the acknowledgement of human responsibility for unnatural disasters can lead to blame, guilt, and liability, it can also prod us to confront the consequences of our actions, leading to a liberating sense of possibility and to the knowledge necessary to avoid future disasters.Christine A. Kleinis the Chesterfield Smith Professor of Law at the University of Florida Levin College of Law and is co-author ofNatural Resources Law: A Place-Based Book of Problems and Cases(Aspen Publishers).Sandra B. Zellmerholds the Robert B. Daugherty Chair at the University of Nebraska College of Law and is co-author ofNatural Resources Law(West).

    eISBN: 978-1-4798-0747-5
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. PREFACE: MISSISSIPPI RIVER CHILDREN
    (pp. xi-xx)
  4. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. xxi-xxi)
  5. INTRODUCTION: DISASTERS, NATURAL AND OTHERWISE
    (pp. 1-12)

    Drive through any suburban area and you are likely to find subdivisions with names like “Oak Tree Farms,” “Meadow View,” and “Eagle’s Nest.” But try to find the features that inspired those names, and you may discover that the trees, meadows, and nests have given way to farms, neighborhoods, and lush lawns. Are those places still “natural,” even though sod has replaced meadow, and dog houses have replaced bird nests? Walk into any grocery store and there will probably be an aisle dedicated to natural foods. Does that suggest, somehow, that the stock filling the rest of the aisles is...

  6. 1 AN UNNATURAL RIVER: HOW WE GOT HERE
    (pp. 13-34)

    The Mississippi River, although mighty and impossing, has been bent to the will of humans. Throughout history, waterways have been magnets for civilization, and the Mississippi is no exception. But where some earlier societies adapted themselves to the rhythms of the river, the United States did just the opposite. Armed with the technology of the Industrial Revolution, American engineers of the nineteenth century began to remake the river itself in the name of trade, travel, and settlement. The changes have been wondrous. The engineers made the river straighter, shorter, and deeper. They redirected millions of tons of sediments away from...

  7. 2 A DECADE OF RECORD FLOODS (1903–1913): THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT TACKLES FLOODS, BUT WITH LEVEES ONLY
    (pp. 35-61)

    One of the earliest written testimonials of the Mississippi River’s propensity to flood comes from Garcilaso de la Vega’s chronicle of Hernando de Soto’s expedition to the New World. In his journal, dated 1543, de la Vega described how the river’s floodwaters rose up near its confluence with the Arkansas River, just across from modern-day Clarksdale, Mississippi:

    [A] mighty flood of the great river . . . came down with an enormous increase of water. . . . Afterward the water rose gradually to the top of the cliffs and [then] overflowed the fields with the greatest speed and volume....

  8. 3 THE FLOOD OF 1927: SHELTERED BY IMMUNITY, THE CORPS VENTURES BEYOND THE “COLOSSAL BLUNDER” OF THE LEVEES - ONLY POLICY
    (pp. 62-78)

    The roaring twenties! It was a decade of celebration. After the floods of the previous decades had subsided and the armistice of 1918 ended hostilities on the Western Front, the nation was ready to put its losses behind and move forward. New technologies and a skyrocketing stock market made the future look bright. Superstars like baseball great Babe Ruth, with his astonishing sixty home-run season record, and trans-Atlantic pilot Charles Lindbergh made people dream of greatness. “Talking pictures” were all the rage in movie theaters throughout the country, and the first radio networks—NBC and CBS—were created. Although the...

  9. 4 THE FLOOD OF 1937: THE CORPS BUILDS FLOODWAYS
    (pp. 79-89)

    After Congress passed the Flood Control Act of 1928, the nation embarked down a new path. In adopting a flood control strategy for the lower Mississippi, Congress had drawn upon the expertise of the nation’s best and brightest engineers, who had produced more than three hundred alternative plans. Congress settled on the “Jadwin Plan,” authored by the Corps’ chief engineer, Major General Edgar Jadwin. A compromise, the plan attracted its share of opponents, including those who were in the path of the newly designed floodways and spillways. When the Great Depression hit in 1929, just one year after enactment, other...

  10. 5 MID-CENTURY FLOODS IN THE MISSOURI RIVER BASIN: CONGRESS PROMISES SOMETHING FOR ALMOST EVERYONE
    (pp. 90-99)

    The Missouri River—the Mississippi’s longest tributary—is just as prone to flooding as the Mississippi itself. While the Corps was busy erecting levees, floodways, and other structures throughout the nation under the auspices of the 1928 and 1936 Flood Control Acts, the Missouri River rose up from its banks in 1937, 1942, and again in 1944. By then, the balance of power over commerce and water resources development had shifted 180 degrees from state and local governments to the federal government. As law professor Rena Steinzor explains, “The federal government created an array of national institutions to govern everything...

  11. 6 HURRICANE BETSY OF 1965: THE CORPS FORTIFIES NEW ORLEANS AND CONGRESS INSURES FLOODPLAIN RESIDENTS
    (pp. 100-121)

    About five to six thousand years ago, the area where New Orleans now sits began to develop as a sandy mound in the Gulf of Mexico. Sediments from the Pearl River, which forms part of the Mississippi-Louisiana boundary today, flushed out to the sea, gradually building up a barrier chain named the Pine Islands. Over time, as new land built up, the islands became what we know today as the southeastern shore of Lake Pontchartrain. To the west of the Pearl River, sediments from the Mississippi River were also accumulating, but from the opposite direction. About forty-three hundred years ago,...

  12. 7 THE FLOOD OF 1993: REVEALING THE MORAL HAZARD OF SUBSIDIZED FLOOD INSURANCE
    (pp. 122-139)

    When Congress authorized the creation of the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) in 1968, it did so with trepidation. It worried that subsidizing flood insurance—even with strings attached—might encourage development of risky areas, luring even more people into harm’s way. Back in the 1920s, President Coolidge had worried that such federal subsidies would encourage waste unless citizens had a direct financial interest at stake. Later, in 1956, Congress established a flood insurance program but declined to fund it because Congress feared that federal subsidies would lead to more floodplain development and increased flood damage. A decade later, renowned...

  13. 8 HURRICANE KATRINA OF 2005: REVEALING THE IMPORTANCE OF COASTAL WETLANDS
    (pp. 140-160)

    Wetlands, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, are “transitional areas, sandwiched between permanently flooded deepwater environments and well-drained uplands.”¹ They come in a wide variety of types, including marshes, swamps, forested wetlands, bogs, wet prairies, vernal pools, and mangroves. They are prominent in natural floodplains. Like floodplains, and despite their name, wetlands are not always wet. But their intimate relationship with water leaves telltale signs—characteristic wetland soils and plants adapted to live in a sometimes-wet, sometimes-dry environment. As a result, scientists can recognize wetlands as such, even during dry periods of the year.

    Historically, wetlands have been underappreciated, even...

  14. 9 RUINED LIVES: TROUBLE RAINS DOWN ON MINORITIES AND THE POOR
    (pp. 161-172)

    In Richard Wright’s story “Down by the Riverside,” which takes place during the Mississippi River flood of 1927, the character of Brother Mann finds himself in desperate need of transportation. Lulu, his pregnant wife, has to get medical attention, and quickly. But river water is lapping at the steps of Mann’s house, and it is impossible to walk or drive to the Red Cross hospital. As Mann rows his family past the levee in a stolen boat (there were none for sale, at least not to a black man), he observes “long, black lines of men weaving snake-fashion about the...

  15. 10 DOUBLE-TAKES: CHARGING TAXPAYERS, TWICE
    (pp. 173-184)

    Ironically, the nation’s flood strategies shift the riskawayfrom those who gamble on floodplain development or otherwise settle in vulnerable areas. As a result, many of the risk-takers avoid paying the full price of their behavior; instead, they shift the costs onto others. As described in the previous chapter, too often those who bear the brunt of the nation’s failed flood management policies are the poorest members of society, who lack the financial means to settle in safer areas, to evacuate from a floodplain during disaster, or to purchase flood insurance.

    But apart from these risk-takers, both voluntary and...

  16. CONCLUSION: HOW LAW HAS HURT, HOW LAW CAN HELP
    (pp. 185-204)

    They huddled nervously beside the river.

    “Will we get wet?”

    She couldn’t help but smile as she responded, “Yes.”

    “Will we end up where we started?”

    She paused for a moment. The answer seemed obvious enough: “No.”

    She was working as a summer raft guide in Colorado, taking a break after her first year of law school. Her customers were understandably anxious that June morning as they stood on the banks of the Arkansas River and snugged up their life jackets. The river raged past them, swollen with runoff from barely melted mountain snow as it made the fourteen-hundred-mile journey...

  17. NOTES
    (pp. 205-220)
  18. BIBLIOGRAPHY
    (pp. 221-246)
  19. INDEX
    (pp. 247-257)
  20. ABOUT THE AUTHORS
    (pp. 258-258)