After weeks of rain, the Mississippi River crested at Cairo, Illinois—an all-time high, exceeding the 1937 record by two feet. The Army Corps of Engineers breeched a levee to reduce the level at Cairo. The water has to go somewhere, flooding the town of Pinhook, Missouri and acres of farm land, a kind of triage. The same thing was done in 1937. Cairo is probably the most poorly situated city in the country on a narrow strip of land between the Mississippi and the Ohio Rivers. As Isabel Wilkerson writing for the New York Times in 1993 pointed out, “For generations, some farmers figured floods and droughts into the cost of doing business. But then the country’s big plumbing system of levees and dams, made better after every flood, was supposed to keep the rivers in their place and maintain the comfortable paradox of living on a floodplain.”
Just because our ancestors ignored nature and put a city in harm’s way does not mean we need to perpetuate the mistake. There will be heavy rains and hurricanes, and the flood waters will reclaim their own ancestral haunts. The truth of floods is that despite huge investments in flood control, the long term damage is unchanged. Why? Because we keep adding people and structures to the flood plain so that when the protections inevitably fail, the damage is higher.