• The Mississippi: A Visual Biography by Quinta Scott

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The Flood of 2008

There were several floods along the Mississippi and the Louisiana coast during the Summer of 2008.

First, the Flood of 2008 along the Upper Mississippi destroyed many levees that collapsed in 1993, and many that didn’t. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers described the flood as shorted in duration as the 1993 flood, which soaked the Upper Mississippi floodplain from June through October, but more intense. By late August the floodplain, near my house had dried out, leaving large puddles with great concentrations of fish that had been washed into the fields on the flood, food for egrets and herons, which hung around the shrinking puddles all summer.

Mid-western farmers had just fertilized their newly planted fields. All that fertilizer washed to local streams, which carried it to the Mississippi and the Gulf of Mexico, where the Dead Zone grew to an area the size of New Jersey.

Then came the hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico, two to date, after two years of quiet.

While Gustav blew roofs off the houses in Houma, Louisiana, and turned out the lights as far north as Baton Rouge, Louisiana, it did not flood the little towns on Louisiana’s coastal bayous. It did not because, Gustav tracked across Louisiana’s coastal wetlands, which acted as speed bumps and took the energy out of its storm surge. The hurricane came ashore at Grand Isle, Louisiana’s only occupied barrier island. That was the first speed bump. Then it tracked across the wetlands in the Barataria Basin, what coastal scientists call the Barataria Landbridge, the marshes that lie between Barataria Bay to the south and the fresh marshes and cypress swamps to the north. What was left, when it reached Houma, was wind, lots of wind and rain, but no flooding in the bayous.

No so Ike, a huge storm that covered the Gulf of Mexico. Ike wiped out Galvaston Island in Texas and took our focus away from the Louisiana coast, which received flooding from Plaquemines Parish along the Mississippi River to the Sabine River on the Texas border. Those who lived through Katrina and Rita said the flooding in 2008 was worst than it had been in 2005, particularly when compared to Rita.

My friend Wendy Wilson Billiot, who lives on Bayou du Large, fifteen miles south of Houma, lost her house, which flooded during Rita in 2005. Go to her blog at http://BayouWoman.wordpress.com to see her experience.

But Ike was not finished with us when it left Texas and Louisiana. It tracked northeast through Arkansas, into Missouri, through my hometown of Waterloo, Illinois, across Indiana and Ohio, where its winds and rain put out the lights in Cleveland.

Friends from Rochester, New York, visiting relatives in DuPage County, Illinois, found themselves piling sandbags around a house close to the DuPage River.

Which brings us to the second Flood of 2008 on the Upper Mississippi. Ike dumped a lot of rain on the Upper Midwest, which all drained down the Mississippi, reflooded the fields that had finally dried out and backup into the small streams that flow across the floodplain and between levees, including the Cahokia Canal, which drains much of the floodplain north of Columbia, Illinois.

Sunday morning when I crossed the bridge over the Cahokia Canal on my way to church, the flood in the canal was half way up the levee. The Mississippi was more than two feet above flood stage upriver at St. Louis and almost ten feet above flood stage downriver at Chester, Illinois. The flooded Mississippi backed up into the canal and acted like a dam at the mouth of the canal, preventing water draining from the floodplain from flowing to the river. 

When I crossed the canal on Monday evening, the canal was within its banks. The Mississippi was two feet below flood stage at St. Louis, enough to allow Cahokia Canal to drain to the big river, leaving a muddy bank and a flood line, marking the levee.

It was just like someone had pulled the plug in a bathtub.


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