As I watch the video of the first gates of the Morganza spillway opening and releasing a foaming rush of water from the Mississippi River into the Atchafalaya and look at the maps of the areas that will be flooded, I ponder the choices that our decades-long public works experiment is forcing on us. I ask along with one of the folks in Gibson, Louisiana, forced out by the rising waters, "what gives them the right to flood us?"
Protecting the numerous residents of Baton and Rouge and New Orleans -- even if it means risking the less populous areas of Louisiana -- is probably the right choice. Still, I can't help but think that the way the US Army Corps of Engineers is handling the Mississippi flooding reflects on the inequalities of American society. Flooding the Atchafalaya river valley protects.... who, besides the residents of big cities? How about B. F. Goodrich, E. I. du Pont, Union Carbide, Reynolds Metals, Shell, Mobil, Texaco, Exxon, Monsanto, Uniroyal, Georgia-Pacific, Hydrocarbon Industries, Vulcan Materials, Nalco Chemical, Freeport Chemical, Dow Chemical, Allied Chemical, Stauffer Chemical, Hooker Chemicals, Rubicon Chemicals, American Petrofina, as described in Fighting the Mississippi River, an article written in 1987, long before the current crisis in Louisiana, by Pulitzer prize-winning author John McPhee. McPhee's article was later expanded into a book titled The Control of Nature.
So along the banks of the Mississippi in the big cities, we have businesses and residents with the means to build and maintain riverfront properties. In the areas the Corps projects will be inundated we have poor people, their homes, their farms, fishing grounds, and their livelihoods. Aren't they more vulnerable to being wiped out, compared to the businesses along the banks of the Mississippi? Do we as a nation really believe it's better to save the assets of companies than the homes of families?
Water policy in the US has long favored the powerful and wealthy. In his book Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water, author Marc Reisner outlines the history of water rights in California and surrounding states. Reisner makes a pretty good case that some, in places like the Owens River Valley, had their water taken from them by means at best unscrupulous. In Louisiana, maintaining the river as the conduit of commerce to the Gulf of Mexico has taken precedence over homes and communities away from the big cities. In the short term, political and financial forces ensure that this tradeoff will favor the wealthy, but in the long term, what happens to the folks who will have nothing to go back to if the floodwaters carry everything away?
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