To see more images of Hodding Carter's 300-mile ride down the Mississippi at flood stage, check out guide John Ruskey's blog at Deltabohemian.com.
“WHAT'S WRONG?” I asked John Ruskey. He slowly closed his cell phone. Glancing toward photographer Chris LaMarca to see if he was in earshot, he gazed at the churning Mississippi.
It was our second day canoeing the Great Flood of 2011, and the river was hurling us southward at a rate of almost 100 miles a day.
“My wife,” John finally answered, shaking his head. “Somebody told her there’s a shoot-to-kill order for anyone on the water.”
This was bad news. On May 16, we had sneaked a canoe into the river in Memphis, Tennessee, setting off to paddle 300 miles downstream to Vicksburg, Mississippi. We knew, of course, that what we were doing was illegal. On May 13, Mississippi governor Haley Barbour had issued an executive order banning all nonofficial watercraft from the flooded areas. But we couldn’t resist. Since 1998, John has worked as the only paddling outfitter on the Lower Mississippi, and I grew up in the Delta, exploring its rivers and bayous since elementary school. This was our chance to see the Old Man the way he’d been in his prime, before levees channeled the river in a controlled path around New Orleans and out to sea. Now, however, with the water raging at two million cubic feet per second—churning up football-field-size boils, countless whirlpools, and other dangers—getting shot was just one of our concerns.
Water levels like this hadn’t been in the forecast for the spring of 2011. Unlike the Great Flood of 1927, the previous high-water event, this one had literally dropped out of the sky—just weeks after southern farmers had planted heavily to cash in on rising commodity prices for everything from corn to soybeans. Although there had been an impressive amount of snowmelt bulging the river in early spring, that had pretty much run its course by planting time. Then, from April 14 to 16, the storm system responsible for one of the largest tornado outbreaks in U.S. history dumped record amounts of rain in the middle and lower Mississippi River Valley, engorging the river almost overnight.
Four more systems hit in the weeks that followed, quickly producing some of the highest water levels ever recorded on the Mississippi. The river rose to 61.5 feet at Cairo, Illinois, to 47.7 in Caruthersville, Missouri, and to 47.8 in Memphis—each mark near or above local flood stages. All along the lower half of the river, in Tennessee, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi, the water was cresting at or near levee-topping heights, threatening 6.8 million acres of farmland and town after town after town.
The big question was whether the levee system would hold. After the devastating flood of 1927 submerged 27,000 square miles, killed more than 200 people, displaced 700,000, and wrought property damage estimated even then at $347 million, Congress ordered the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to construct or improve the world’s largest system of levees, dams, and floodways—including 2,300 miles of mainline levees extending from Missouri through Louisiana. The still-unfinished project was largely completed in the 1980s, but the Corps’s work had never been tested like this before, and officials were doing everything possible to shore up the levees: piling on additional riprap, sheathing entire structures in plastic, and stacking up sandbags.
Since even the tiniest damage to levees can lead to river water pouring through, state and federal officials had stationed armed personnel along them to discourage anybody—terrorist or sightseer—from coming close. Back in 1927, similar armed patrols guarded the levees for hundreds of miles on both sides of the river. In Rising Tide, John Barry’s definitive 1997 book about the ’27 flood, Barry quotes an anonymous telegram sent to the governor of Louisiana and published in the press that warned river captains, “The next boat that comes down at such high speed will need two pilots, as we intend to kill the first one. Our guards are armed with Winchesters and they have orders to shoot to kill.”