When the Levee Breaks

Steve Ross has an excellent post about the flood, reminding people that, even if they are on high ground, they need to make sure their escape route remains open. No good being on high ground surrounded by water.

But I did want to address this part:

Last night the US Army Corps of Engineers blew up part of a levee in Mississippi Co., Missouri. They have scheduled two more blasts, but the second was delayed due to weather. I’m not sure about what kind of impact this will have on us down stream, but any effort to help keep the flow of water out of highly populated areas is welcome.

I said this over there but I just want to stress: This will have no impact down stream. The Commercial Appeal story explains why:

The levee-breaching, last done during the 1937 flood, occurred late evening after corps blast teams finished filling pipes embedded in the levee with tons of an explosive slurry. After the detonation, the river began eroding the barrier to pour into the floodway at a rate of 4.1 million gallons per second, creating a 200-square-mile lake.

Subsequent blasts today will open outlets in a levee near New Madrid, Mo., allowing the water to re-enter the river.

In effect, all they are doing is widening the river, trying to take a lot of water west, through the spillway, to relieve pressure on towns to the east of the spillway. Opinion seems to be mixed on whether this course of action in ’37 helped or not.

I know reading the farmers bellyaching about having to have some land under water so that towns can be saved seems, well, frankly, like they should get a grip. Our country’s farming is not all done in a 200 square mile area south of St. Louis. But I think it’s important, even if I think they’re wrong, to understand where they’re coming from. I think they think that, if people in Cairo lose their homes, chances are those homes will be replaced by flood insurance or some government program. No one really works in Cairo any more. It’s become a bedroom community and a dying one at that. If this just hastens the town’s death, well, it hastens the town’s death.

But, if they lose that farmland, even just for this year (and let’s be clear, blowing the levees means that), and farm equipment they could not get out of the way, they are looking at enormous financial losses. Their jobs and their livelihoods are gone. And then, if the ground isn’t fit for farming next year? People who managed to hold on even after this year will be done in.

I think it’s important to remember that a lot of people are feeling like “my whole life could be destroyed” and whether “life” is “where I live” or “how I make my living,” there’s real pain there. There are no perfect answers in times like this. Even as things are happening, people have to know that there’s probably something they could be doing better or differently. But what can you do?

Anyway, here’s Alison Krauss and Robert Plant singing “When the Levee Breaks,” a song Plant first did with Led Zeppelin, which was a reworking of an old Memphis Minnie song she wrote about the ’27 flood. I wish Plant and Krauss would put out a live album from their tour together. I think this is a beautiful and haunting version of this song.

4 thoughts on “When the Levee Breaks

  1. I know this is callous of me, but there’s only so much sympathy I can have for those farmers. When your stand on your land and look up at the levee you have to know you’re taking a risk and you might ought to have a back-up plan. And at some point they did take a payment from the Corps for just this occasion. They’ve been playing the odds ever since.

    I think a lot of them got caught up in ‘it’ll never happen to me’. Levees are very bad that way. They cause a very false sense of security.

  2. Not only what W said, but anyone farming in that corridor of Mississippi bottomland has got to know that the area has been designated as flood project overflow since the 1927 flood. It’s not like they randomly chose Birds Point as the place to put the “artificial crevasse” in the levee.

    And you have to wonder how that fertile farmland got to be that way in the first place. Before the Corps MR&T (MS River & Tributaries management plan), that area routinely went through flooding cycles. The only thing that’s been keeping that area intact has been the active damming (Kentucky and Barkley Dam relieving a lot of inflow into the lower Ohio), artificial control strategies, and levees. There’s just been too much water overwhelming the system and this contingency has been in place for several decades.

  3. That area in Missouri has been a designated floodway since 1937. Farming is a series of gambles even at the best of times. They have been betting that the levee would never actually have to be blown. They’ve been winning the bet for over 70 years.

    Plus, the news keeps talking about Cairo. It isn’t just Cairo that this is helping, it’s places like Mound City, Olive Branch, Grand Tower, etc. Why does Cairo keep coming up? First of all, it’s almost surrounded by the Mississippi and Ohio, so the aerial photos are really impressive. There’s also that little bit of demographic trivia that most people in Southern Illinois and Southeast Missouri already know, so we don’t have to mention it. Mississippi County, Missouri is roughly 70% white. Cairo, Illinois is over 70% black. Nobody is actually saying it, but it’s there.

  4. It’s also one of the most desolate cityscapes you could hope to see, a shell of its former self (when river transit was king).

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