Blaming Nature: When 'Natural' Disasters Are Caused By Us

It’s easy to categorize most floods, storms, and hurricanes as “natural” disasters, but what does it mean when the blame for their effects lies with us?


| May 2014



A Mississippi River flood

When calamity strikes in the Mississippi basin, our first impulse is to shudder at the uncontrollable fury of nature.

Photo by Fotolia/Etrayne04

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 (NYU Press, 2014), by Christine A. Klein and Sandra B. Zellmer,  reveals that it is seductively deceptive—but horribly misleading—to call such catastrophes “natural.”

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 Louisiana. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agency in charge of managing the river, describes it as one of the nation’s “out­standing assets.” But the Corps also asserts that the Mississippi, in its natural condition, represents a “liability . . . [that poses] a threat to the security of the valley through which it flows.”

When calamity strikes in the Mississippi basin, our first impulse is to shudder at the uncontrollable fury of nature. We sense, deep in our gut, that it was only a matter of time before the Mississippi unleashed a natural disaster, revealing itself as the deadly liability recognized by the Corps. And what’s worse, we fear that we have no control over the disaster and that we are powerless to stop it. Nothing could be further from the truth.

War in the Mississippi Basin

The Mississippi River flows through one of the most highly engi­neered river basins in the world. Today, if you were to fly over the river, you might think that the upper Mississippi was not a river at all, but rather a chain of large lakes, one thousand miles long and as much as three miles wide. Concrete chambers — locks — punctuate the upper Mississippi, serving as a watery staircase that allows boats of all shapes and sizes to navigate the river’s uneven course. Crafts headed down­stream wait in one lock as the dam opens and water drains into the lock below, and then continue on their journey when the levels are equal­ized. To travel upstream, the process is reversed: boats wait in the lower lock, floating up as dam-released water flows in from above. There are twenty-nine pairs of such locks and dams on the upper Mississippi, extending from northern Minnesota past St. Louis to the mouth of the Ohio River at Cairo (pronounced Kay-roh), Illinois. This river segment has been transformed so dramatically that it resembles a set of steps more than a natural water body. The architect of the transformation, the Army Corps of Engineers, refers to its handiwork as a “stairway of water.”