• The Mississippi: A Visual Biography by Quinta Scott

    "Great book and great blog - thanks for the first book I have seen that addresses the contemporary river, headwaters to gulf." Dan McGuiness, Audubon, St. Paul, Minnesota

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Nashville Underwater

I’m going to leave Louisiana and the BP oil spill behind for today to ask this: Has anybody noticed that American cities are being flooded, really flooded, with disturbing regularity?

While we were distracted by the big BP oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico and the car bomb discovered in Times Square, another American City went under water. The Cumberland River flooded and inundated Nashville’s downtown.

I started serious work on The Mississippi: A Visual Biography in June 1993, when the Great Midwestern Flood chased me down to work in the Lower Mississippi Valley. No large city went flooded during that flood, though many small communities did. My friends in Monroe County, Illinois swear that the Corps of Engineers created the levee break at Columbia, Illinois that flooded their farm fields in the American Bottom in order to relieve pressure on the flood walls in St. Louis.  While the evidence doesn’t bare that out, parts of northern and southern reaches of the city did dodge a bullet in 1993.

An American Bottom cornfield, where the corn stalks broke off a the flood level, January, 1994

In  April 1997 Grand Forks, North Dakota went underwater and stayed underwater when the Red River of the North flooded the city. The flood did not drain away until ice in Lake Winnebeg, the remnant of Lake Agassiz through which the Red River flows, melt. The catastrophic floods that drained glacial Lake Agassiz that covered much of  northern North Dakota, Minnesota, and southern Manitoba  had a hand in setting the course of the modern Mississippi.

In 2001 Davenport, Iowa, which would rather enjoy its view  of the Mississippi that look at a concrete floodwall, was inundated because the levees that protect Rock Island, Illinois on the opposite bank pushed the floodwaters its way.

In 2005 New Orleans flooded because the Corps of Engineers built inadequate floodwalls along the drainage canals that deliver every drop of water that falls on the city to Lake Pontchartrain. Actually, New Orleans flooded because we Americans have made a whole series of disastrous decisions about how we manage the Mississippi and the Louisiana Coast, starting with the first levees built along the river at New Orleans in 1723.

It was a 500-year flood that soaked Cedar Rapids, Iowa in 2008, when the Cedar River rose 12 feet above flood stage on June 13 with the expectation that it would go three feet higher before easing off in a week or so.

It was a 500-year flood that soaked Nashville last weekend. The  news reports coming out of the city sound like those that came out of New Orleans five years ago: Bodies are being discovered at the floodwaters recede.

In checking topo maps on Terra Server I find that neither Cedar Rapids nor Nashville has levees or floodwalls protecting their riverfronts. Neither thought they needed it. And, like Davenport, who wants to look at an ugly floodwall or live behind a tall levee?

We Americans have yet to sort out how we are going to manage our rivers so these floods do not destroy our cities.

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