A Good Read for a Flood Year

The news about flooding in the lower Mississippi and the opening of the Morganza Spillway prompted me to dig out a book I remembered as highly interesting when I read it years ago — The Control of Nature, by John McPhee (1989). The book contains three lengthy essays or prose documentaries about the interaction of humans with natural forces. The first of them, entitled “Atchafalaya,”  is particularly apt. It describes how European settlers began to “manage” the Mississippi in the late 18th century, an endless process that continues today under the direction of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

In the context of an inspection cruise by members of the Corps, McPhee depicts the primary problem of the Mississippi — it wants to go westward, to yield its substance to the Atchafalaya, a phenomenon called river capture that has been going on for millennia, and which built the Mississippi Delta. Until the 1950s, when it became unacceptable to commerce and transportation, and the Corps of Engineers came forward to stop it by building the Old River Control Structure. McPhee’s article lays out the consequences of this and other efforts at Mississippi management in brisk and agile prose. Reading about what has happened to sediments around New Orleans, I thought about Hurricane Katrina. Reading about the floods of 1973, the only other time the Morganza Spillway was opened, I think about right now. In the late 1980s, McPhee asked several knowledgeable people about the possibility that the control structure might fail despite the immense efforts to strengthen it, and the Atchafalaya would capture the Mississippi after all. It seems that question is still out there and still unanswered.

McPhee doesn’t draw conclusions. He describes what he sees and relays the opinions of the experts without comment. He does not use the word “hubris.” But it certainly popped into my mind as I read.

It’s fascinating to read about human-enhanced disaster on an unusually rainy late May morning, during a spring that has been wetter and cooler than normal. A real flood is not likely here in Victoria B.C., but Manitoba is experiencing something like the Mississippi floods right now, complete with a sacrificial dyke breach.

John McPhee also spent a lot of time talking with geologists on the west coast and wrote about plate tectonics, faults, and related matters (Annals of the Former World, Assembling California). An epic flood is unlikely here, but an earthquake is all too real a possibility. Perhaps I should read those books again.

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