The Mississippi River

By giftshop  |  March 24, 2017  | 

The Mississippi River
The serene yet untamable life blood of our nation that defines our region
A series of stories by Hank Burdine and Boyce Upholt
Photography by matthew burdine, austin britt, rory doyle, and courtesy of the mississippi levee board

“ Ole Mississipp’s ararin’
She’s growlin’ and she’s swearin’,
Ain’t that a body floating in the light?
She’s reaching an’ she’s snatchin’
And she’s keepin’ what she’s catchin’
Cause she’s gonna raise a ruckus tonight.”

The Mississippi River is the third largest river in the world behind the Amazon and the Nile. She carries forty-one percent of the water to the gulf of Mexico from continental United States and parts of two Provinces of Canada. She is the fourth coast of this country cutting right through the middle of the North American continent. Upon her shoulders she carries millions of tons of goods and products each year that feed, house, fuel and clothe the world. Yet, she can be a tyrant at times.
For eons, as prehistoric ages of the earth evolved, spanning millions of years in time, and as ice glaciers formed and retreated and oceans came and went, the great river meandered and cut its way southward to what we now know as the Gulf of Mexico. Always trying to seek a shorter, quicker and steeper way to its mouth, bends were formed just to be cut off possibly at the next high water. Trillions of tons of sediment came in suspension down the river to be deposited in the flat areas along her banks or eventually being spilled off of the continental shelf. As mountain ranges rose and eroded away, she was the grocery cart that carried the overburden to the sea. Unbridled and relentless, she trekked and swerved her way through the heart of our continent, knowing no bounds or restrictions. Native Americans, once they finally arrived, revered her, respected her, built ceremonial mounds on her banks and used her for travel and commerce. She was life giving, yet life threatening at the same time. Eddies and swirls and undercurrents could swallow a dugout canoe and spit it back out a mile below the next bend.
The French showed up at the mouth of the great river in the late 1600s, found a nice bend upstream and began to build earthen embankments to keep the rising waters out and named their new settlement New Orleans. European nations, clamoring for the fur trade in the Hudson Bay area, soon came downriver as trading posts and settlements sprang up and commerce began among the Germans, Spaniards, Dutch and Englishmen bartering with the Indians already ensconced along the great river’s shores. The newcomers began to exploit the greatness and the riches of the alluvial plain.

“At the end of Creation, the Lord came up with too much water. So He turned it loose in Minnesota, told it to go just where it pleased. It wandered down to St. Louis, twisted ‘round south of Memphis, gave its name to Mississippi, made a legend of New Orleans.”
Jimmy Phillips, “Muddy Water in my Blood”

As the settlers began to demand for identity and independence, a young nation was being formed with its lifeblood the rivers, streams and tributaries that carried goods and products, along with its people. Until 1811, flatboats, rafts and large wooden canoes were the only means of transportation on the inland rivers with almost all goods going downriver. Robert Fulton designed, engineered and built the first steam powered boat hauling goods from New York City to Albany, New York. Along with Nicolas Roosevelt, great uncle of President Theodore Roosevelt, Fulton built the first sidewheel steamboat ever to come down the Mississippi. Roosevelt, with his pregnant wife and daughter, along with his crew and attendants, left Pittsburg on October 15, 1811 and arrived in New Orleans on January 12, 1812, successfully opening the great river to commercial traffic up and down the stream. But, that trip was not without problems. While anchored above New Madrid, they witnessed the greatest earthquake of our times, when at one point the great river seemed to run backwards. By mid-century flat-bottomed, shallow draft steamboats plied the river hauling untold quantities of lumber, cotton, grain, minerals and every known commodity that could be moved safely in large quantities. Steamship lines became the greatest competition ever to the expanding railroads.
After the Civil War, the railroads began buying up all the steamship lines and shutting down the river business. By the end of the century there were very little goods and commodities being transported on the river. As fertile lands were being cleared and the railroads were creeping deep into the Mississippi Delta and adjoining alluvial floodplains, more and more primitive levees were being built around individual plantations and towns up and down the river in an attempt to keep the spring floods and overflows from inundating productive farmlands and houses. Small, somewhat ineffective and non-correlated levee boards were formed in order to coordinate the building of district owned levees that included private levees. However, that system had no congruity.  If a levee failed upstream, or if a levee was of insignificant height, then the lands below that system flooded. If a levee burst across the river from where you lived, then the pressure was taken off of you as the flood escaped downstream and away from you. (Sometimes illegally dynamiting levees on the opposing side of the river would save your farm while devastating your neighbor across the way.)

“Ole Mississipp’s arollin’’,
Got her spade an’ goin’ holin’
Look’s mighty like she’s spilin’ for a fight.
She traipsin’ down aswingin’
When she rounds the bend she’s singin’
That she’s gonna raise a ruckus tonight.”

In the spring of 1927 the Mississippi River bared her teeth and showed her force and magnitude when the levee burst at Mounds Landing above Greenville creating the greatest natural disaster our country has ever experienced until Hurricane Katrina came along. According to the book Divine Providence, by Charles Camillo, over two million acres of prime farmland were flooded and an estimated five-hundred human lives were lost along with untold thousands of heads of cattle, horses and mules, chickens and goats. All up and down the lower Mississippi River commerce and livelihoods were devastated. Almost 162,000 homes were destroyed along with 41,000 buildings turning 700,000 people into refugees of whom 600,000 were cared for by the Red Cross or other organizations. Infrastructure suffered tremendously and the estimated total value of losses reached close to one billion dollars while the federal budget rarely exceeded three billion. The 1927 Flood caused the United States Congress to realize that because of the fact that forty-one percent of the country’s water drained down the Mississippi River, it was not a local problem, but a national problem that had to be addressed.
The Flood Control Act of 1928 authorized the Mississippi Rivers and Tributaries Project (MR&T) to be overseen by the Mississippi River Commission (MRC). The MRC was established by Congress in 1879 combining the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and civilian engineers to oversee flood control and navigation issues on the Mississippi River. The MR&T combines all levee districts to insure flood control continuity in one system that is tied together with flowlines and levee construction, maintenance and upkeep all in an integral concept. Navigation, channel improvements  and tributary infrastructure is as important a part of the MR&T as flood control and all aspects must work together to make the entire system function properly.  Flood control in the MR&T is based on a Project Design Flood and all levees and floodways are integrated into this design. Our big lakes, Arkabutla, Sardis, Enid and Grenada are flood control reservoirs, built and operated as part of the MR&T.
During the spring of 2011, because of a very fast ice and snow melt, and an inordinate amount of rainfall in the Ohio River basin, almost one-thousand percent more than normal, the Mississippi River experienced the greatest flood of our recorded history. Twenty-six percent more water came down the river than in 1927, surpassing most records ever set on river gages. All stops were taken out with reservoirs filled to capacity up and down the river in an effort to curtail the flood. The New Madrid Bird’s Point Levee was dynamited as designed to save Cairo, Illinois from flooding and the spillways at Morganza and Bonnet Carre’ were opened up. Our own Yazoo Backwater levee in the extreme south Delta came within four inches of overtopping as it was designed to do in such an event. All the systems worked as a whole and during this epic flood event not one life was lost due to flooding and not one acre of ground was flooded that was not designed and supposed to flood.  We have learned that during times of peak flood to work with the river and to let her go where she has historically wanted to go and to not necessarily try to contain her, but to control her excesses.  The MR&T worked and stands as a testament to the engineering and foresightedness of a system that was designed almost 100 years ago. The MR&T has prevented $800 billion dollars in damages since 1928 and is returning a fifty-four to one benefit to cost ratio, unheard of in today’s times. It protects 4.5 million people and 1.2 million residential structures and untold infrastructure including hospitals, airports, highways, schools and universities. Yet it is only eighty-five percent complete and lacks almost $7.1 billion to be completed. It is considered by some to be the eighth Wonder of the World.
However, our levees here in the Delta were not without problems during 2011. As is the case in any district that is protected by levees, flood fights are an ongoing battle that must be vigilantly pursued and watched over constantly during the different stages of a flood. Sand boils and levee slides must be attended to immediately. Under seepage and problem areas must be monitored and addressed to keep from getting any worse.  Maintenance during the non-flood times of the year is imperative in order to be able to survey, maintain and keep up the many systems and aspects of a levee system infrastructure. The levee is NOT to be taken for granted but must be treated with respect and looked after diligently as it is that levee that protects us all and our livelihoods year after year. We must always be cognizant and ever attentive and remember the words of Jimmy Phillips when he sings, “Revenge is just a flood away.”

“Ole Mississipp’s arumblin’
Can’t you see them sand bags tumblin’?
She don’t care if you’s black folks or white.
An’ when she starts to spillin’
She’s ready for a killin’.
She’s raisin’ her a ruckus tonight.”
Hodding Carter, “The Flood Song”

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