Christine A. Klein, Sandra B. Zellmer. Mississippi River Tragedies: A Century of Unnatural Disaster. New York: New York University Press, 2014. Illustrations, maps. 276 pp. $40.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4798-2538-7.
Reviewed by Amahia Mallea (Drake University)
Published on H-Environment (January, 2016)
Commissioned by David T. Benac
The Water Rises, Again
Trickling from points east, west, north, and south, the Mississippi River is the heart of North America’s largest watershed. Centering on the Mississippi, this book is a primer for the failures of river development, flood control, and disaster policy. Law professors Christine A. Klein and Sandra B. Zellmer begin by intertwining their family histories with the storied river, reflecting the premise that law shapes society. The tragedies in the title are natural and unnatural—ruinous storms, but also outdated policies that cost taxpayers and endanger the most vulnerable. Generally, Mississippi River Tragedies draws on works of environmental history while adding a “legal dimension of unnatural disaster” (p. 11). It is most similar to Theodore Steinberg’s Acts of God: The Unnatural History of Natural Disaster in America (2000, revised second edition 2006).
The concept of the “floodless flood plain” emerged among engineers in the late nineteenth century (p. 34). The courts still viewed flooding as natural and human development near rivers as unnatural. In the flood of 1903, for example, railroads near the river were not compensated for their losses of grain-filled railcars because the presence of railways may have exacerbated flooding. But during the twentieth century, the federal government increasingly committed to flood prevention and to protective structures that shifted laws and expectations. The 1917 and 1928 Flood Control Acts began a policy of building levees in the Mississippi River watershed. Significant for Klein and Zellmer is that, after the massive Mississippi flood of 1927, the federal government took on more responsibility for flood control, replacing the local level and putting power into the hands of the US Army Corps of Engineers, but it immunized the corps against responsibility for its flood control structures. In the authors’ words, the law stated “that ‘the King can do no wrong,’ and even if he does, he cannot be sued” (p. 78). Problematically, little was done to clear the floodplains. The government made choices about who would be protected, using eminent domain and flowage easements. The latter were “disastrous” because they allowed private property development in zones that were likely to flood (p. 83). In 1937, for example, the corps blasted levees to protect Cairo, Illinois, to the detriment of poor cotton sharecroppers on the Missouri side.
Klein and Zellmer, tell a story of hubris, led by the Corps of Engineers. After World War II, the federal level took full responsibility for waterways. With the 1944 Flood Control Act, the Missouri River was dammed, dredged, and straightened, disconnecting the river from its historic floodplains. Urbanites from Omaha to St. Louis expected protection. Addressing the Missouri River “menace” in the 1950s resulted in about 350,000 thousand acres of tribal land submerged in reservoirs, revealing “benefits did not extend equally to all” (p. 99). Mandan, Arikara, Hidatsa, and Lakota/Sioux peoples lost farmland, towns, and cemeteries to the reservoirs. Here, the authors begin to integrate a social critique of disasters.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Congress and the courts worked at “cross-purposes” (p. 114). Legislators funded the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) and disaster relief while Supreme Court decisions expanded private property rights, and thus limited the ability to regulate risk-prone developments. These “double-takes” had taxpayers subsidizing both flood insurance and regulatory “takings” (p. 173). The chapter on Hurricane Katrina is satisfying and cumulative. Leaving the details and storytelling to earlier books and documentaries, Klein and Zellmer focus on law and policy while tying in previous chapters. With a few years of perspective on Katrina, it is possible to see the legal arc: at first, a lower court denied the corps immunity, but later, the courts ruled that the corps and federal government could not not be held liable for engineering flood risk.
In summary, floods happen and levees fail, therefore it is imperative that policymakers prevent risky development. After Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, the NFIP is now bankrupt. In a telling statistic taken from a Congressional Research Service report, 30 percent of all NFIP funds go to claimants who have received multiple payments (p. 190). It is obvious that land-use regulation and stronger incentives to relocate are critical to minimizing calamity. The federal government—from engineering to disaster relief—“has promised more than it can deliver” (p. 191). It would cost less and be fairer to legislate and regulate as if floods were a natural event. Klein and Zellmer’s overarching point is that laws are currently hurting when they could be helping.
The authors use maps and images well and employ effective vignettes. Cases are chosen both for their storytelling capacity and legal significance. Examining legal precedent sometimes requires looking at other waterways or subjects but it is remarkable how much the Mississippi can contribute to our understanding, excepting the arid West. Weaknesses are unevenness of chapter length, some extraneous content, and reliance on the work of others. The latter is a concern for those who already have works by John Barry, Craig Colton, and Ari Kelman sitting on the bookshelf. That said, Klein and Zellmer have written an engaging, readable synthesis that provides a legal perspective to the layperson. Anyone, including undergraduates, with an interest in environmental policy and justice will find this book valuable. Mississippi River Tragedies helps explain why the water is rising, again, and—satisfyingly—it concludes with four recommendations for reform.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-environment.
Amahia Mallea. Review of Klein, Christine A.; Zellmer, Sandra B., Mississippi River Tragedies: A Century of Unnatural Disaster.
H-Environment, H-Net Reviews.
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