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Mississippi River Flooding

May 11th, 2011

May 11, 2011 –The snow melting later than usual from an extra long winter and a whole lot of spring rain have added so much water to the Mississippi River all at once that it’s flooding. When water levels rise, the river can’t hold all the water inside its banks, and large amounts of it end up on land, ruining peoples homes and lives.

Mississippi River

A few days ago, the Mississippi — the U.S.’s largest river system and the 4th largest in the world — was in danger of overflowing right near the town of Cairo, Illinois, where 3,000 people live.

Because flooding isn’t new to this area, a system of levees (walls to keep water out), floodways and flood gates were put into place after what many say was the worst flood ever, in 1927.  But extra measures were needed now because the Mississippi River was 6 times its normal width in some places. And if the levee near Cairo couldn’t keep the river out, the town would flood.

photo credit: Jill Block

The person in charge of figuring out how the system of levees, gates and floodways should be managed, Major General Michael Walsh of the Army Corp of Engineers, had a very tough decision to make: burst the levee somewhere before the town of Cairo to redirect the river … or hope that the water wouldn’t rise as high as predicted and the levee would hold.

Unfortunately, redirecting the river meant flooding 130,000 acres of crop-growing farmland where 200 people live. No matter what decision he made, homes would be ruined and people would be upset.

photo credit: Boston Globe

Because there were less people in the farmland, Maj. Gen. Walsh decided to redirect the river, but only if he had to.  If the Mississippi rose over 61 feet when it reached Birds Point, Missouri, they’d burst the levee by exploding a two-mile part of it.

It reached 61.7 feet. So, they loaded up two barges with 265 tons of explosives, put it into 11,000 feet of pipe, and blew up the part they needed to.

More than 4,000,000 gallons of water were released per second.  Between the explosion and the rushing water, it sounds like a very dramatic moment, but an expert named Paul Worsey, said it was more “like a big burp. Then … a big lake”.

photo credit: Jeff Robertson

It did, however, seem to save the people of Cairo. Two more areas further down had to be blown up, as well, to send the water back into the Mississippi River as it continued toward the Gulf of Mexico.

But after all that, there’s still flooding because the Mississippi’s tributaries (smaller bodies of water that feed into bigger ones) are still backed up, like a big traffic jam of water except the water’s going somewhere no matter what.

photo credit: Jeff Robertson

Maj. Gen. Walsh said that this was just the beginning.  It was Memphis, Tennessee’s turn on Tuesday and although they were spared the worst, parts of it still flooded badly. Over the next couple of weeks, as the Mississippi continues south, more decisions will need to be made and more towns along its banks could flood.  As devastating as it is for some, thankfully, many people have been able to prepare.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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