If you’ve been keeping an eye on the slow-motion tragedy unfolding in southern Louisiana – the one that is poised to flood out some 25,000 people in the low-lying bayou country – now might be the time to delve into the archives and re-read John McPhee’s near-definitive account of the history of the levee-ing of the Mississippi River through its southern passages. It is an astounding story, from one of America’s great teller-of-tales, first told in 1987 on the pages of the New Yorker, later in his compilation, The Control of Nature:
“The Mississippi River, with its sand and silt, has created most of Louisiana, and it could not have done so by remaining in one channel. If it had, southern Louisiana would be a long narrow peninsula reaching into the Gulf of Mexico. Southern Louisiana exists in its present form because the Mississippi River has jumped here and there within an arc about two hundred miles wide, like a pianist playing with one hand—frequently and radically changing course, surging over the left or the right bank to go off in utterly new directions. Always it is the river’s purpose to get to the Gulf by the shortest and steepest gradient. As the mouth advances southward and the river lengthens, the gradient declines, the current slows, and sediment builds up the bed. Eventually, it builds up so much that the river spills to one side. Major shifts of that nature have tended to occur roughly once a millennium.”
The essay is not named for the river that we know; it’s named for the river that might-have-been, the Atchafalaya. This is the stream whose course would have stolen the Mississippi’s waters back around 1950 when it was locked off from the main waters in an attempt to prevent a wholesale diversion around the southern cities, and to keep a waterway running through New Orleans - and thus to keep alive an economy and a way of life that depends on maritime traffic. If you have an hour, read the essay; it is illuminating in a way that no news report captures.
The law of unintended consequences might just as easily be called the law of obvious consequences no one wants to acknowledge; hydrology does not, and has never, favored the channeling of moving water into narrowly constricted flow regimes. The levee-ing of the Mississippi’s course in the north and the strait-jacketing of the river into its narrow course through the bayou region was always a recipe for a flood of Biblical stature. These efforts allowed people to live in areas (and root in a culture so unique that one might almost call it indigenous) where no human would rightly put down more than the prow of a boat throughout most of history; it spawned a self-perpetuating bureaucracy for whom ever-greater investment leads in close circuit to ever-greater need for infrastructural support – and ever-greater blame when the inevitable fails.
John McPhee and many in his cast of characters foresaw this day twenty four years ago, much as alarms were raised in advance of Hurricane Katrina that fifty years of re-engineering the bayou region (including the infamous Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, which allowed a salt-water intrusion to diminish the protective cypress swamps and channeled flow into the city) would bring disaster into New Orleans if ever a hurricane made a direct hit. What these two moments have in common is not only geography, but a common root: these are not natural disasters, these are man-made disasters. These are not alone attributable to the weather and rains of fate; these are predictable, engineered, preventable disasters.
It is hard to argue with the Corps of Engineers today, when the waterways will be opened that may run the flood so far out as to drown the entirety of Morgan City; the choice is between a million people and structures in the greater area around New Orleans – which has certainly taken its share of hits in the last few years – and relative handful in the lowlands, and that’s a grim but not difficult choice to make. The more difficult choices will come in the next months to years: will we as a nation go on insisting that elements like fire, water, and earth should obey the edicts of poorly-planned engineering, or will we decide on safer and saner means of planning around these forces that are as inevitable as death and taxes, and as integral as the air we breathe to the fabric of life.
In the meanwhile, twenty five thousand evacuees could use your thoughts and contributions, today.