AS THE Great Flood of 1993 continues to wreak havoc across the Midwestern United States, a country long accustomed to believing that human technology could solve all problems is beginning to wonder: can man tame the mighty Mississippi river, and indeed should he even try to?
The answer to the first part still looked in grave doubt yesterday, although waters were receding slightly in Iowa's ravaged capital, Des Moines, while the upper Mississippi river system of dams, reservoirs and levees was fending off collapse, thanks in large part to the efforts of tens of thousands of volunteers stacking sandbags around the clock.
But increasingly the second question is being posed. Mark Twain, the literary patron of the 'Father of Waters', wrote that the Mississippi could never be controlled. Over two centuries, however, Americans have tried mightily to do so. It was legitimate to ask, commented the Chicago Tribune this week, 'whether the precautions have been worth the cost, or whether they have made matters worse'.
Others point out that townships along the river, and the artificial protection they required, had interfered with a flood's natural function of bringing new fertile topsoil to farmlands nearby. They query the very rationale of allowing settlements, and then paying federal insurance for those who suffer from calamities which are inevitable.
But the experts argue there is no choice. To relocate entire communities is impractical, insists General Stanley Genega, director of civil works at the Army Corps of Engineers. Some dollars 25bn ( pounds 17bn) of such investment since 1937 had saved dollars 200bn of potential flood damage, including an estimated dollars 8bn in the Midwest.
In terms of direct losses, the 1993 season on the Mississippi and Missouri will not reach that figure. Indeed, the upper prediction of dollars 5bn pales beside the dollars 14bn cost of the Farm Belt drought of 1988 and the dollars 17bn bill for Hurricane Andrew last August. But apart from lost crops and ruined homes, the national economy faces more insidious disruption to an important section of its transport network. Around 500 million tons of freight moves on the Mississippi every year, two thirds of it grains, oil products and coal. But the river has been closed for freight on a 583-mile stretch north of St Louis for weeks. The floods are also forcing costly rail detours, and road links are in peril.
All eyes are on the Illinois riverbank town of Quincy, where the Mississippi was due to crest again yesterday. Two levees have already been smashed by the surging torrents of water. All day volunteer workers were piling sandbags to save the third and last levee. If it is breached, the only functioning bridge across the river in a 212-mile stretch north of St Louis will be shut to traffic.
Locals were keeping their fingers crossed but, warned an official of the Federal Emergency Management Agency at Quincy: 'It's going to get worse before it gets better.' The floods are a crucial trial for the agency, which covered itself with anything but glory in its handling of 1992's two major disasters, the Los Angeles riots and Hurricane Andrew.
The weather offers little respite. Between 1in and 3in of rain were forecast across Missouri and southern Iowa. The culprits are high pressure areas to the west and east, creating an unending stream of storms in the Mississippi and Missouri heartlands. Thus far 25 people in six states have died because of the flooding, while 7 million acres of farmland have been inundated. President Clinton, home after his stop-over in Iowa to survey the chaos, was on Capitol Hill yesterday to press for immediate action on his dollars 2.5bn relief package, but almost certainly that figure will rise. 'We know the figure has gone up,' said Terry Branstad, the Governor of Iowa.
(Photograph and map omitted)
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies