9/1/10 - levees and floods

In today's excerpt - part of an article from the September, 1927 edition of The National Geographic Magazine describing the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927—the most destructive river flood in the history of the United States. Rains fell for months over 31 States and two Canadian provinces drained by the Mississippi River, comprising an area of 1,240,000 square miles, causing nearly 60 cubic miles of excess water to reach the Gulf. Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover's handling of flood relief operations propelled him into the national spotlight and set the stage for his election to the Presidency. The poor treatment of African-Americans in refugee camps was one factor in their subsequent "Great Migration" to northern cities. The flood resulted in a cultural outpouring as well—Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie's "When the Levee Breaks" was reworked by Led Zeppelin, and became one of that group's most famous songs. In this flood, there was a foreshadowing of both Katrina, and today's Indus River catastrophe in Pakistan where six million are now homeless:

"Since time began, the fact that water runs downhill has warped the fate of men and nations. In Babylonia kingdoms fell with floods and the famines that followed.  Some say a Hebrew prophet could foretell the Seven Lean Years because he knew the habits of the Nile. The Mongols, cutting the Tigris levees, conquered Baghdad. In China more men drown than die in battle. One Yellow River flood claimed more than a million who drowned or starved. So, through the ages, man's fiercest fight has  been to save his land from flood and famine—a fiercer fight by far than war ever waged against a hostile kingdom.

"Along the Rhine and Danube, the Volga and Yellow; along the Tigris, Indus, and Euphrates; along our own cruel Colorado and marauding Mississippi, man has long matched his wits against the powers of Nature. When white men founded New Orleans, 200 years ago, they had to throw up dirt banks to bar the river from their rude camp. From that day to this, with men, mules, machines, and money, the towns and planters along the river, aided in more recent years by the Government, have fought a losing fight against the floods.

"It is a stupendous struggle. Its battle front is flung from the Ohio to the Gulf.  In heat, mud, and miasma, slaving men and sweating animals, toiling through the years, have thrown up 2,500 miles of huge, fortlike levees. Higher and higher they build them, hoping always that some day, somehow, they may achieve perfect flood control.

"But hydraulic principles are stubborn. They will not compromise with man's puny plans. The levees, as built, have turned once vast, empty swamps into rich, thickly inhabited areas and added hugely to our national wealth. Five years out of six they may hold; to that extent they are successful; but when the river rises high enough it breaks them. In the great floods of the eighties the levee system broke in 712 places. It had often broken before. It has often broken since.

"Now, as I write this, it is breaking again. Today the most destructive flood in all the annals of this rapacious river is rolling from Cairo to the sea. Parts of seven States are under water. Nearly 800,000 people have been driven from their homes or rescued from housetops, trees, levees, and railway embankments. To save New Orleans, levees are blown up [upstream to lower the river]. Tons and tons of dynamite are used, throwing masses of mud and driftwood high into the air, repicturing in a way the shell-torn fields of France in war times. ...

"The whole Nation, at first amazed and appalled, quickly and magnificently rallies with millions in money, with trainloads of clothing and food to comfort hungry, helpless victims of the worst American flood of all time. 'It is the greatest peace-time disaster in our history,' said Herbert Hoover. 'We are humble before such an outburst of the forces of Nature and the futility of man in their control.' "


Frederick Simpich


"The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927"


The National Geographic Magazine


September, 1927


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