With each passing day, the Mississippi River nears or sets new flood records. This spring’s titanic rainfall in Missouri, Arkansas, and other states of the Mississippi Valley has threatened thousands of people’s homes and lives. While Memphis managed to survive the worst of the flooding, the river slowly flows on, toward Baton Rouge, New Orleans, and the rest of Louisiana, all still recovering from 2005’s Hurricane Katrina. On Saturday, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers opened the Morganza Spillway, flooding a large section of southern Louisiana, hoping to save the cities downriver.
People call this flood, as they call other natural disasters, an “Act of God.” This line of reasoning argues that tornadoes, hurricanes, naturally-caused fires, earthquakes, floods, and other disasters are uncontrolled by humans. Thus we bear no responsibility for the disaster.
Certainly this assumption is not entirely incorrect. Human beings hardly caused the Japanese earthquake. Despite the realities of climate change, we can’t say humans hold responsibility for any one hurricane, flood, or tornado. But natural disasters also put human inequality into sharp focus. Humans choose who bears the brunt of a given disaster, choices that often reflect long histories of race and class bias . The Japanese government invested in sophisticated technology to protect Tokyo buildings from destruction. It also placed nuclear power plants near earthquake fault lines.
When I teach my course on natural disasters, I introduce it by asking a simple question: Why do tornadoes always hit trailer parks? Students titter because everyone knows that stereotype. Of course, tornadoes don’t hit trailer parks at unnatural rates; people who live in quality housing tend to survive tornadoes and those who live in substandard housing without foundations do not.
The poor suffer disproportionately during natural disasters. In the United States those poor people tend to be people of color. Moreover, American corporations and governments have created infrastructure that protects the interests of the wealthy in times of disaster. Mike Davis noted in his influential essay “The Case for Letting Malibu Burn” the different federal and state responses to wildfires in the poorer areas of Los Angeles and the affluent hills around Malibu. With each fire in Malibu, property values skyrocket because of the massive payoffs homeowners receive from the federal government, allowing them to rebuild ever more elaborate mansions. What amounts to government subsidies of wealthy communities continue despite the fact that those mountains have naturally burned every few years for millennia. Meanwhile, the government abandons inner-city L.A. neighborhoods when they burn, with little to no compensation for residents.
We see this same paradigm in the history of the Mississippi River. Ted Steinberg points out in his 2000 book Acts of God: The Unnatural History of Natural Disaster in America, that Hannibal, Missouri, home of Mark Twain, decided to protect their historic and profitable downtown with a high floodwall. That wall ended just south of the town center, at a poor neighborhood’s edge. When the Mississippi River flooded in 1993, those floodwalls protected downtown Hannibal. But the built up energy of the water unleashed itself upon the poor of Hannibal in an eight-food flood.
That’s hardly the only incident where political power and flooding have intertwined on the Mississippi. As Ari Kelman shows in A River and Its City: The Nature of Landscape in New Orleans, during the 1927 Mississippi River flood, planners save New Orleans by blowing up the levees in one of the most impoverished portions of the state, a Cajun area upriver from New Orleans. The flood decimated the local agricultural and muskrat trapping economy and demonstrated once again that landscapes reflect power, as the poor carried the burden of saving New Orleans.
Steinberg quotes Hannibal, Missouri resident Sheila Todd, who noted after the 1993 flood, “We can’t afford to live anywhere else but down here where it floods. It’s always the poor people who get screwed.” The interplay between property values and flood plains is very important in the Midwest. To date, the biggest human story in the current flood was when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers blew up a two mile section of the dike in rural Birds Point, Missouri in order to save the town of Cairo, Illinois from inundation. The Corps had clear legal right to blow the dike. And it’s hard to criticize a decision that saves a historic city.
But why did people farm land that has historically flooded frequently? In the Midwest, people with a choice live above the flood plain. It is no coincidence that New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward is a largely African-American working class neighborhood; going all the way back to French and Spanish settlement of the city, wealthy people staked out higher ground to protect themselves from floodwaters. Those who can’t afford that protection are forced into the floodplains.
While some of the Missouri farmers who lost their land to the floods had worked it for generations, others had purchased farms more recently because they could afford this land. But that low cost came with significant long-term risk—the strong possibility of eventually losing your home to one of the great river’s periodic floods.
As the flood creeps into Louisiana, keep the relationship between landscape and power in mind. While we obviously need to save Baton Rouge and New Orleans from destruction, with the flooding of the Morganza Spillway, poor, rural Louisianans again have to suffer as their homes and farms flood. Says Merinda Leger of Stephenville, Louisiana, “Baton Rouge and New Orleans should be sending us help because we’re saving their butts. Y’all pray for us. You can at least do that.” Of course, the government could do more than pray. It could rethink the human relationship with the river to create a more equitable system for dealing with natural disasters.