In John Barry’s epic account of the Mississippi River flood of 1927, the devastation in the Delta regions of Louisiana and Mississippi forced a small U.S. government to mobilize to save lives and property in a way that changed the country.
For Barry, it was the forerunner of the New Deal after 1933, the extraordinary expansion of government agencies needed to cope with the vast economic dislocation of the Great Depression.
But the 1927 flood also occasioned a vast expansion of the river levees in the decades after. It became a Louisiana priority in Congress.
Those levees have this year been tested by a rising Mississippi that eclipsed the records set in 1927.
The record run in flood stage at Baton Rouge hit 211 days before ending Sunday afternoon, blowing past the former 92-year-old record by 76 days.
The good news is that the river levees of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers worked.
This year's high water did break levees on the Arkansas, Missouri and upper Mississippi rivers, but the lower Mississippi flood control system that grew out of the '27 flood held fast.
A record use of the Bonnet Carré Spillway upriver of New Orleans helped to manage the process.
One concern was that the river’s fall might be too fast, potentially damaging levees that hundreds of days of high water had stressed in the other direction. The Corps reported that the fall of the river has been slow enough to avoid that problem.
Still, the constant vigilance of the Corps has been necessary during such a dramatic level of high water. We commend the agency for that, and hope that federal and state governments collaborate closely to make any needed repairs expeditiously.
We might need the levees on the river again, sooner than we think. For the 12 months ending in May, the river’s record was fueled by the heaviest rainfall in 125 years, according to the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration.
With the Mississippi River draining just over 40 percent of the continental United States, what comes down up there flows down here sooner or later.
We can expect more and heavier rainfall events, according to scientists studying the changing nature of the global climate. At the same time, subsidence in coastal Louisiana is a more slow-motion threat to levees throughout the region. Both are issues for the Corps and Louisiana going forward.
The levee system along the river worked, this time. It is a national responsibility to keep that protection for the future.