Flooding A Town: The Power of the Levee System

I have been fascinated and appalled by the levee system of the Mississippi river. Small towns have been under water for weeks in order to save the larger cities all along the river based on decisions by the Army Corp of Engineers.

Morganza Spillway opened in Lousianna

One town that predates the levee, Pinhook, MO, is underwater to save Cairo, IL. A loss of hundred of millions of dollars to that state.  Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster asked the U.S. District Court to block the levee-blasting idea, but this was rejected. I cannot imagine another state choosing to flood a town in my home state.

Pinhook, MO after the levee was blown open.

And although there are many philosophical theories on the ends justify the means and the good of the majority is paramount to the good of the few, we don’t often take that view in America.  Liberals tout civil rights for the few and the Libertarian motto is “Don’t tread on ME”, not us.

As an individual with many views that do not hold with the majority, I find the idea uncomfortable.

And I’m awed that the Army Corp of Engineers has the power to use a levee system to destroy homes, livelihoods and entire towns.  Based on what scale? Financial? Populations size? How do they chose who to flood?  I couldn’t find any information on the calculations.  And that surprises me.

I understand the argument that these people knew what they were getting into when they moved there.  But some of those levees hadn’t been used in nearly 50 years!  We all have a tendency to fall into “but that would never happen to me” mentality and when it last happened 2 generations ago, it seems fair to think a home and a life would survive.

I have also read “Oh, if they had insurance, they will be reimbursed.”  And I think: 1) how much did LIVING NEXT TO A LEVEE insurance cost and 2) insurance money doesn’t replace towns and relationships.

VIcksburg, Mississippi

I’m relieved that people have had time to gather photographs and other irreplaceable, and I understand that the alternative floods would be more expensive and affect more people. But it’s difficult to look at pictures and not wonder whether there’s a better way than a flood system designed in 1927.  Or at least wonder if there should be.

How you can help those affect by the flooding:

Main Information Sources: NPR: Long-Feared Flood Rolls Toward La. Bayou Country
USAToday: Opposing view: Army Corps of Engineers hurt Missourians and Our view: Mississippi flooding redeems Army Corps
Photo Sources: Louisanna Dept of Wildlife & Fisheries, stltoday.com, Associated Press

Alex Iwashyna

Alex Iwashyna went from a B.A. in philosophy to an M.D. to a SAHM, poet and writer by 30. She spends most of her writing time on LateEnough.com, a humor blog (except when it's serious) about her husband fighting zombies, awkward attempts at friendship, and dancing like everyone is watching. She also has a soft spot for culture, politics, and rude Southern people who offend her Yankee sensibilities. She parents 2 elementary-aged children, 1 foster baby, 3 cats, and 1 puppy, who are all Southern but not rude. Yet.

30 thoughts to “Flooding A Town: The Power of the Levee System”

    1. I hadn’t even thought of the parental side of it. It would be so hard! One story of a woman who ran out of money to stay in a hotel and had to move to a shelter stood out to me. And now I’m imagining that with children… {sigh}

  1. Roads, bridges and levis are never as sexy as Green Jobs, hybrid cars and Wind Power. Therefore they are want of attention until disaster strikes.
    Triaging homes and cities is the dark side of the Nanny State.

    Do I see your political needle swinging from Nanny State Liberalism and towards a smaller, less intrusive federal government? Maybe even just a smidgen?

    1. Oh, I think we all need a little nannying – I believe very strongly in civil rights and our inability as individuals to uphold fairness. I think that it’s interesting that both liberals and libertarians could find themselves on the same side of this particular discussion.

      And I find hybrid cars driving on bridges VERY sexy.

      1. You totally lost me on this one. Libertarians believe in the ability to govern self. There is no way they would be on the same side as anyone who believes in “nannying” and “fairness.”

        Life isn’t fair and we can’t legislate morality to make it fair.

        1. “on the same side of this particular discussion” is the levee discussion of my post…

          walt and i are just having fun as a libertarian and a liberal, respectively, who have learned to laugh with each other despite our differences. We consider ourselves models for our small-large government.

              1. I kind of was. Then I visited my Facebook and was reminded that tomorrow is supposed to be the end of the world.

                I hope the special effects are good.

                I’m much less grumpy now.

  2. What would it look like without the levy system? Would these towns have flooded without any intervention? I know the Corp of engineers work on many flood prevention projects, from levies to reservoirs that fill with water. I believe the goals and intentions of the organization to be good (and apolitical). I cannot imagine these decisions were made lightly or without concern for the families and towns that lost so much. Nature is fierce and powerful. Though we choose to believe ourselves masters of our planet, we cannot control her power.

    I do not mean to sound callus. I, myself, live in a flood prone area. We made our best choices (living higher, buying insurance) but that won’t mitigate a true disaster.

    My heart goes out to all the people affected by the rising waters.

    1. The levees were put into place after a massive flood in the 20s… It seems like that was a time when we (USA) had big ideas on controlling nature — I think it was the same time that we attempted to drain the Everglades. I’m not sure what the area would be like without the levees. And I think that we as a population like land and it gave us more of that near a very usable river. Is it the same idea as building a house on the beach or is it more important than that? I don’t know.
      And I don’t think the flooding is political — I meant that few political parties in America believe in the group before the individual.

  3. I live in the state of Misery, about 12 miles from the Birds Point Levee. The correctional facility I work for is about 8 miles from the levee. We have dozens of friends that were affected by this, and yes I feel horrible for them. Yes, the insurance costs were astronomical, but most that lived in between the levees had insurance. I also have friends that live in Cairo. They were flooded before the levee was ever blown. My only argument to your statement is that the state of Illinois is not the responsible party for the levee being blown, neither is Louisiana or Mississippi. The Army Core of Engineers and the federal government is responsible. Not blowing the Birds Point Levee would have put pressure on other levee’s and dams aside from the one in Cairo. For instance, if the levee at Cameron had blown even the people who lived inside the levees at Bird’s Point would not have been safe. It would have then flooded all of Mississippi, New Madrid and numerous other Southeastern Missouri counties. On top of that, we would probably have all lost our jobs as the entire correctional facility would have been about 4 feet under water.

    I for one am glad that they took the precautions they did, but I still feel sorry every day that my secretary lost her home and everything she owned because she lived in between the levees and couldn’t get her stuff out. Sometimes Mother Nature sucks!!

    1. Thank you so much for your point of view since you are in the forefront of the disaster. It means a lot to hear your perspective.

      I didn’t mean to imply that Illinois had a say because it was definitely an Army of Corp Engineers decision (which is federal agency as you said). Maybe because I live in Virginia but I don’t think people here would take kindly to flooding a Virginian town for a Maryland, West Virginia or North Carolina town. We are a bit touchy about states rights. (Now, I’m not saying that it’s the best way to be, of course…)

        1. I know what you mean about states rights, and trust me it was not peaceful down here, but I think in the end they had to make the hard decisions. Your politics and mine are actually quite similar , even in this. Love your writing, especially about your frustrations in parenting.

      1. The Army Corps of Engineers made the decision which would cause the least terrible affect (as much as they could, anyhow). Blowing the levee where they did and when they did was required to save towns, people and property down-river.

        My brothers and sisters in arms in the Missouri Army National Guard worked their tails off down there, some of them risking their lives, to ascertain that the people were safe.

        It’s silly to make any implication that the states were not involved in this decision. They certainly were. The Corps of Engineers simply provided the information needed to make an informed decision and then carried out that decision.

        1. Actually the Army Corp of Engineers has full authority over those levees and have since 1928. Perhaps I overstated that the states had no say but it was not like Illinois “won” over Missouri or “made the call”. The Army Corp of Engineers accessed the situation as you explained and made the best decision in a difficult situation.

  4. Thank you for posting this. I used to be involved in a Mississippi River class (and a Hurricane Katrina class– I’ve actually blogged about this stuff), and I’ve been to all of these places more than once. I’ve spoken with AC of E types and I’ve seen how this effects the people and the land. The pictures of the river from Memphis alone were staggering to me, since I’ve been to the town several times, and know exactly how far the river rose. For a better perspective on the decisions that have been made, I suggest reading Rising Tide– about the 1927 flood. It’s an impressive text, to say the least.

  5. Humans have been interfering with the way the Earth was created for many years – which in turn greatly interferes with how we live our lives – and sometimes if we live our lives.
    I am like you – very puzzled with this whole process. I don’t know if I’m on either side – I just think it is all very bizarre.
    Thanks for all the info on helping the flooding victims!

  6. Really? You believe that we all need nannying? wow. I’d like to think that I know what’s better for me than the gubmint. But hey, I’m a Libertarian, and you’re a little off when you say that Libertarians are only concerned with ‘me’. NO, we want to be left alone to make our own decisions that DO NOT also hurt someone else.
    I used to live in Memphis. The amount of tornadoes and the power of the mighty Mississippi scared me away. When my wonderful hubby and I decided to buy property and build our home we didn’t want to have to have our hands out to the aforementioned government to provide us with anything. We actually built on top of a large hill, if we flood, it’s because Mother Nature poured enough rain down to fill 2500 feet below us. I know that’s not feasible or realistic for everyone, but we made that decision as Libertarians to NOT need to be rescued.
    I’m sick to see all that wonderful farmland and our future food being inundated with water to save the cities that should never have been built. (Say hello to high food prices) I’m also sickened knowing that the cities that sustain damage will be rebuilt with my $$, when we built with natural disasters in mind, and will be flooded again in again in my lifetime.

    1. Absolutist ethics work every time for the libertarian because they rate property as equal to life and property…simplicity of it all is so freeing…I suppose.

      1. It is pretty simple, I suppose. I’m responsible for my life and property. You’re responsible for yours. Why should I be responsible for you and your property? Government sponsored insurance is a moral hazard. If you know the government is going to bail you out why not build your house in a flood plain? The government is going to take MY money to pay for your bad decision.

    2. I really appreciated your comments on Memphis and farmland. I do wonder why cities that were build in swamps are less culpable than small towns built by levees. And I think that the levee situation is truly eye-opening.

      And, of course, I believe in (what you Libertarians call) nannying — I’m a liberal for goodness sakes!

  7. Unfortunately, I believe that this type of “Sophie’s Choice” will become the norm. Global warming leads to extreme weather which leads to really crappy choices for people.

  8. Yeah, I can’t get behind that either. You don’t chose one or the other. Didn’t the people in the big cities along the river also know they were moving into areas that could flood?

  9. I grew up in a tiny town (away from any levees, thankstogoodness) of 3000. This practice makes my heart ache and my blood boil. There may be less of us, but we build memories in our homes too.

  10. I just moved to New Orleans in February and I knew that flooding and hurricanes come with the amazing culture and food of the area. For me it is a known risk. I am very grateful that they opened the Spillways and have spared New Orleans from flooding. I am sad for the people who have lost their homes. Thankfully they were given notice to be able to evacuate and hopefully save precious memorabilia. Ultimately property is just stuff. Property isn’t nearly as important as life. Would I be sad if all my furniture and my home was lost in a flood, of course, but I would still be thankful that my loved ones and I are safe. Would I cry, yes. A lot. But I’d still rebuild and acquire new property.

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