Mississippi River Tragedies: A Century of Unnatural Disaster

Mississippi River Tragedies: A Century of Unnatural Disaster

Mississippi River Tragedies: A Century of Unnatural Disaster

Mississippi River Tragedies: A Century of Unnatural Disaster


American engineers have done astounding things to bend the Mississippi River to their will: forcing one of its tributaries to flow uphill, transforming over a thousand miles of roiling currents into a placid staircase of water, and wresting the lower half of the river apart from its floodplain. American law has aided and abetted these feats. But despite our best efforts, so-called "natural disasters" continue to strike the Mississippi basin, as raging floodwaters decimate waterfront communities and abandoned towns literally crumble into the Gulf of Mexico. In some places, only the tombstones remain, leaning at odd angles as the underlying soil erodes away. Mississippi River Tragedies reveals that it is seductively deceptive--but horribly misleading--to call such catastrophes "natural."

Authors Christine A. Klein and Sandra B. Zellmer present a sympathetic account of the human dreams, pride, and foibles that got us to this point, weaving together engaging historical narratives and accessible law stories drawn from actual courtroom dramas. The authors deftly uncover the larger story of how the law reflects and even amplifies our ambivalent attitude toward nature--simultaneously revering wild rivers and places for what they are, while working feverishly to change them into something else. Despite their sobering revelations, the authors' final message is one of hope. Although the acknowledgement of human responsibility for unnatural disasters can lead to blame, guilt, and liability, it can also prod us to confront the consequences of our actions, leading to a liberating sense of possibility and to the knowledge necessary to avoid future disasters.


Drive through any suburban area and you are likely to find subdivisions with names like “Oak Tree Farms,” “Meadow View,” and “Eagle’s Nest.” But try to find the features that inspired those names, and you may discover that the trees, meadows, and nests have given way to farms, neighborhoods, and lush lawns. Are those places still “natural,” even though sod has replaced meadow, and dog houses have replaced bird nests? Walk into any grocery store and there will probably be an aisle dedicated to natural foods. Does that suggest, somehow, that the stock filling the rest of the aisles is “unnatural”?

The fuzzy line between natural and unnatural reflects ambivalent attitudes toward nature. We idealize it, naming our neighborhoods and our healthiest foods in its honor. And yet we also see nature as an adversary to be conquered, blaming it for such “natural disasters” as floods, storms, hurricanes, and erosion. Sometimes, we even blame the Almighty and attribute our woes to “acts of God.”

Nowhere is this tension clearer than in the Mississippi River basin. The great river and its tributaries flow through, drain, or form the border of more than thirty states. Overall, the Mississippi drains about 40 percent of the continental United States, from Montana to New York, from New Mexico to North Carolina, and from Minnesota down to . . .

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