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Rivers and Lakes

A Historic Look at Mississippi River Floods

The 12 million people who live along the Mississippi River have either lived through or heard tales of the mighty floods of 1927, 1937, 1973, 1993 and 2008, each event causing its own brand of devastation to the people and communities along the river.

As one of the country’s most defining natural resources, the Mississippi is not the same river it was 84 years ago. Significantly more people have moved into the Mississippi basin, spurring the development of larger cities and towns, more farms and other business interests like shopping malls and gambling casinos. The inevitable progress associated with increased populations has made the Mississippi floodplain and the people who live there more vulnerable today to widespread devastation.

1927: Torrential rains in 1926 and 1927 caused massive flooding over seven states, an event that left 700,000 homeless, killed 250-1,000 people and inundated more than 26,000 square miles with floodwaters – equal to the size of Connecticut, New Hampshire, Vermont and Massachusetts combined.

In some areas, the Mississippi reached 80 miles wide. Typically, the widest part of the Mississippi is at Lake Winnibigoshish near Bena, Minnesota, where the river is more than 11 miles wide. The 1927 flood spurred the creation of what was then the world’s largest system of levees and spillways designed to protect the lower Mississippi from a flood considerably bigger than it had just experienced.

1937: The flood-control system built after the 1927 flood was severely tested when heavy rains caused massive flooding in both the Ohio and Mississippi Valleys, inundating about 20 million acres and leaving approximately 1 million homeless and more than 300 people dead. The size and scope rivaled the flood of 1927. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers used the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway and the Bonnet Carre Spillway for the first time.

1973: The largest volume of water since the flood of 1927 surged down the Mississippi, impacting 16 states and killing approximately 30 people. The Morganza Spillway in northern Louisiana was opened for the first time and the Bonnet Carre Spillway was opened for a record 75 days.

1993: Unprecedented rainfall caused the Mississippi to overflow its banks, inundating 20 million acres in 9 states, damaging or destroying about 50,000 homes, forcing more than 54,000 people to evacuate and killing an estimated 30-50 people. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reported that 40 federal levees and 1,043 non-federal levees either collapsed or were damaged by the floodwaters. Barge, railroad, truck and airline traffic was severely impacted. The estimated cost of the disaster was about $20 billion.

2008: The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers opened the Bonnet Carre Spillway for the first time in 11 years. Floodwaters delayed rebuilding of levees damaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

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