Friday, May 20, 2011

The flood, as it were

It’s strange being in the Mississippi Delta right now. In many ways life feels routine, yet there is a tandem feeling that something truly terrible could happen at any moment, and in fact is already happening nearby.

The Delta is part of the floodplain of the Mississippi River, which is something the river is very much interested in reclaiming right now, the only constriction being the levees built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The irony is that without the levees there would be a minimal threat of floods. There would be only a natural fluctuation of water, spreading out over a broad plain perhaps 150 miles wide. With levees, people can farm the remarkably fertile land and build houses and towns, but they can also enjoy what is, potentially, a false sense of security. Right now the levees, which are as much as 30 feet tall, are holding back the equivalent of a slow-moving tsunami that is hundreds of miles long. All of which means that you dwell in, or even merely enter, the Delta at your peril.

Everyplace outside the levees is already flooded, to heights higher than ever known before in recorded history. It’s hard not to see this within the context of the disturbing series of natural disasters that has gripped the planet this spring, including the earthquake and tsunami in Japan and six weeks of intermittent tornado strikes across the American South. Yet it is also hard not to see the hand of man in it. Communities outside the levees are flooded at higher levels in part because those levees contain the water in a narrow channel that has itself been hastened toward the Gulf by dredging and the straightening of bends. We have disrupted and defied the natural flow.

My grandparents lived in a house raised perhaps 10 feet off the ground, outside the levees, on a low ridge along Steele Bayou in the low-lying south Delta. Water got into their house only once, though almost every year the place was surrounded by a vast, temporary inland sea, which meant that the only way to come and go was by boat. Still, I only heard my grandparents refer to one “flood,” that being the great one in 1927, when the levees (which were lower than they are now) broke and hundreds of people died. In my grandparents’ view, a flood was an unexpected disaster, and everything else was just “high water.” Today, that view is mostly gone. Any time a river spills from its banks it’s considered a flood, though by that standard you may as well consider the incoming tide at the beach a flood, too. People live in tornado zones, in regions swept by hurricanes, landslides and wildfires. There are risks anywhere. But you have to acknowledge those risks and plan accordingly. Fully relying upon the government to protect you is foolhardy. If nothing else, the current flood, and the looming potential for greater devastation, makes everyone aware of that.

So far the levees have held, which made it possible for me to drive, yesterday, to Rolling Fork, in the south Delta, for an event at my friend Drick Rodgers’ house, Mont Helena, which stands atop a high Indian mound.
Such mounds were built for ceremonial purposes, not to escape floods, which would have been much less frequent in the natural flood plain, and would have rarely come as a surprise to people closely attuned to the fluctuations of their environment. That said, I have no doubt they provided a safe haven on those occasions when the Native Americans found themselves in the grips of an unusually high water event, and I figured if the levee broke, a mound would be a good place to be. It was the getting there that was a bit unnerving, knowing that that tsunami was rolling past just beyond that long earthen dam, the effects of which were being felt, in a less dramatic yet meaningful way, along all the tributaries, which are now flowing backward as the river attempts to distribute the flow.

My usual route to Rolling Fork, along U.S. 61, was closed because the Mississippi Department of Transportation built one section lower than the rest, and it is now underwater. Likewise, my second choice, to the east, along back roads, had been swallowed by the inland sea. Next, among the possibilities, was U.S. 49 West, which was open, for now.

The water was lapping on the edge of the pavement of 49W as I drove north from Yazoo City, and by the time I returned, later that night, this route had gone under, too, illustrating how fast things can change. That meant my third possible route was now denied me as well. The government’s help, at this point, consisted of a flashing portable sign saying the highway was closed and that motorists should choose “an alternative route.” Thanks! To get back to the hills I had to follow a network of unfamiliar back roads to another highway, 49 East, which is now the last conduit into the Delta from the south that remains open. Wandering across a vast floodplain in the middle of the night, with the water rising, made me more aware than ever of how much we rely on others to keep us safe. After seeing what happened during and after Katrina, the government does not seem like a reliable choice, yet there I was, driving on a highway the government had designed and built, partially protected by levees that the same government had designed and built, hoping for the best. In the end, I made it home safely.

A few things came to mind as a I drove, including that people in the Delta don’t let something like a mortal threat get in the way of a party. That, and the matter of how we choose to believe we can manage the menaces of life. We face myriad perils every day, and to some extent have to just get past that. But there is also the potential for sheer hubris, for ignoring the realities of mounting perils. Where do we draw the line? I also noticed this: People tend to see the Delta as a uniformly flat expanse of flood plain, yet the flood reveals variations that are both subtle and profound. There is no question, at this moment, of the importance of math, of the difference between an elevation of 98 feet above sea level and an elevation of 110. Driving across the Delta, I passed through areas where many thousands of acres of farms, forests and dwellings had been inundated, which had caused deer, snakes, alligators and other wildlife to congregate in strange places (such as people’s yards, and, I was told, in one case on the porch of a house). But elsewhere, life went on, largely unchanged, with tractors plowing the fields and children shooting hoops in yards. There was a clear, though potentially deceptive, line of demarcation.

The flood comes at a time when it's unusually dry in the Delta, and I saw farms in which the lower reaches were inundated while crops on higher ground were being watered by massive irrigation systems.
I also came upon a lovely little cemetery, on the banks of a bayou that I'd have expected to be flooded, but wasn’t, where cornfields were growing unmolested and magnolias bloomed.
This is the world we’ve made, overlaid upon the natural one, which could break through those levees at any time and take us back to where we began. So far, the disaster has been minimized, but it’s a very fine line.

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