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"The End Of The River" By Simon Winchester

book cover for "The End of the River"

Joe Donahue: On March 19, NOAA issued a report that indicated 23 states in the U.S. should expect to have major flooding this spring. Of those 23 states, all of the ones located along the Mississippi are forecasted to have moderate to severe flooding events.

Simon Winchester’s newest is "The End of The River: Why the Long Struggle to Hold Back The Mississippi May Soon Be Lost, Wreaking Trillion-Dollar Chaos Across The American South."

The story includes the history of the Mississippi River, the engineering feat that keeps its shores at bay, and the impending environmental disaster that one catastrophic rainy season could bring.

Simon Winchester's many books include "The Professor and the Madman," "The Map that Changed the World," "Krakatoa; and A Crack in the Edge of the World." 

He is a dear friend to this program, and it's a great pleasure to welcome Simon Winchester back to The Roundtable. How are you?

Simon Winchester: Well, I'm very well Joe. I just feel rather bad when you talk about all the disaster I'm forecasting to pile, as they say, “Pelion upon Ossa” to add to the miseries of coronavirus by now talking about a probable catastrophe on the Mississippi but it is what it is.

It is what it is. Let us talk first I have a diagnostic question which is this is not a book book. This is an e-book for my understanding, and is put out by Scribd, and people can go online to find it, right? That is how it is read?

Indeed, and Scribd, which is this newfangled outfit based in San Francisco, knew I was doing another book about the Mississippi which comes out in I think, June, which is a book of photography, about the whole length of the river. And when I was getting done is I came across this phenomenon. This thing that attempts to prevent the Mississippi breaking its banks now is under threat itself. And I thought it would be interesting to write a shorter book. And then Scribd came to me and said, well look. With this newfangled medium, we only buy the digital rights and the audio rights. So this is what resulted. It came out about a week ago, I think. And it's about 15,000 words, digital, and then I went into a studio in New York and recorded it. So yes, it's a short. But I'm fascinated by Scribd, it seems to be an interesting new way of publishing things that are longer than magazine articles, but shorter than books.

So what brought you to the subject and ultimately, to what should concern us about the future of the Mississippi River?

Well, I'll try and be as economical as possible. About 10 years ago, a photographer in Pennsylvania, wrote to me and said he was doing a, chronicling the entirety of the West Coast of the Americas from the Aleutian Islands, right down to Baja California, taking photographs from a series of aeroplanes. Would I provide the text? And I did in the book came out, say about 10 years ago called somewhat unimaginatively “The West Coast”. Then he said, let's do the East Coast. And so he took aeroplanes from the very northern tip of Ellesmere Island, down to Key West, and I provided the text for that. And then he said, Well, why don’t we do the Mississippi, so that allowed me and by this time, he was using drones as well as planes, which is obviously less expensive. And so we went together all the way from Lake Itasca in northern Minnesota, which is where the Mississippi rises, right down to a community called Venice, Louisiana, south of New Orleans, where it dispatches into the Gulf of Mexico. And it was during this trip, and that book comes out in the in the summertime, but during this trip that I came across this extraordinary phenomenon with an equally unimaginative name, called the Old River Control Structure. And that is a series of dams, which prevents the Mississippi doing what it desperately wants to do. And let me explain. A little bit difficult on the radio without maps and things. But basically, north of Angola penitentiary, which I have many of my listeners will know about this extremely ugly prison in northern Louisiana, just north of there the Mississippi comes within three miles of another river, called the Atchafalaya, which flows into the Gulf and instead of diverting through New Orleans as the Mississippi does, passes through a place called Morgan City, which not many people know anything about. The Atchafalaya, three miles away from the Mississippi is 20 feet lower than the Mississippi and gravity having an inexorable pull, it wants to pull the Mississippi out of its current course, down into the Atchafalaya. Mark Twain 1883 said, Of course Mississippi wants to go wherever it wants to do. And mankind can put up all sorts of dams and barriers and levees and things. But it'll ultimately go where it wants to go. Well, where it wants to go is into the Atchafalaya, and the US Army Corps of Engineers, which has essentially run the Mississippi since the 1820s says, No, it's not going to, because if it does, then there'll be no more Baton Rouge. And more significantly, there will be no New Orleans because suddenly it won't have a river flowing through it and all the docks and everything that makes New Orleans so commercially important, will vanish. Its raison d être will disappear. So they built these dams. And the problem is that these dams, and there are two crucial dams, terribly boring names for those, The Low Sill and the Auxiliary Structure. They are getting increasingly vulnerable to the flooding that, as you mentioned in your introduction, is becoming because of climate change, and a more significant part of the Mississippi future. So that's what the book, the Scribd Original as it’s called, is all about. What happens if these dams fail, as well, they now might.

You write in the book, “In the Great Flood of 1927, 1,500 miles of the Lower Mississippi levees, which had been constructed so painstakingly, and yet so thoughtlessly, were either overtopped, breached, creviced, or undermined with the water in this case seeping beneath and erupting on the levees’ dry sides in spectacular fountains that ripped the earth apart and inundated all before it. The river became 60 miles wide south of Memphis, at places where other rivers joined, a swath of land 80 miles wide was completely flooded. 40,000 buildings were destroyed. 250 people died.” You write, “700,000 people became refugees in their own country”, and you say “The social consequences last to this day, most especially with the floods triggering enormous and irreversible movements of population from the old south to the industrial north.” So given what happened in the Great Flood of 1927, so have we just been seeing a breakdown of the system ever, ever since then, really?

Well, yes. Not to put it too finely, yes. We've been attempting to make sure that if such a flood ever occurs again, it will wreak that kind of damage that it wrought back in 1927. Because as you so beautifully described, it had tremendous economic and social effects. This must not be permitted to happen again. And so it's been levees, levees levees all the way from St. Paul, right down to New Orleans, with some additions because we got we thought we got some what However, to mitigate the possibility of flooding, the Old River Control Structure is one of them. And these two gigantic edifices, the Morganza Spillway, and the Bonnet Carré Spillway, which are opened very, very rarely to ease the flooding if the river really brims up hugely because the thing about the Mississippi nowadays is so many levees have been constructed that the surface of the Mississippi in many many places is well above the land. It's like a huge sort of aqueduct, like a big snake lying on the on the fields in Arkansas and Mississippi itself, Louisianna ready to burst out. So you have these spillways, Morganza, Bonnet Carré, which if the Mississippi gets completely out of control, they'll be flooded, or the gates in them will be lifted and the water will cascade out to ease the pressure. But crucially, most crucially of all, are these huge concrete walls in the Old River Control Structure, and they have designed these hydrologists, and hydrology is a very, very complex subject. I didn't realize this, they called in to design these dams, no less a figure than Albert Einstein's son, who was a hydrologist working in Berkeley. And he came over designed, the first one the Low Sills in 1972. And I was in Washington at the time as a reporter, we're all busily looking at the details of the Watergate. Nice coincidence in language there, the Watergate scandal. Unbeknown to us, the enormous flood was beginning in the Mississippi, and very, very nearly the thing called the Low Sill which Einstein had designed, nearly destroyed itself. It didn't, to the grace of God if you like, and so they decided to construct another one which was called the Auxiliary Structure, which opened in the 1980s. Well, that is now under threat. And the calculations have always been 1927 flood, add 25% to it, that is the biggest flood it is possible to imagine in the Mississippi. So we'll design all our structures to withstand that. It's called the Project Design Flood. But the trouble is, with all the business of climate change, with the snow melt from the Rocky Mountains, you've got to remember the Mississippi drains 45% of the Continental lower 48 states. And I mean as far east as Maryland and Virginia, are drained into the Mississippi. So if rain falls in Ohio, in Illinois, in Minnesota, snow falls in Colorado, it'll all ultimately wash into the Mississippi. The floods are approaching that 25% over the 1927 flood and if that were to happen, then almost certainly these structures will fail and then catastrophe.

You say in the book what happens then, mayhem, basically and of two very different kinds, the one related to the passage of the newly directed river and the other to the abandoned valley of the Mississippi. The first would be dramatic, the second pitiable and profoundly so so. So it doesn't seem in my reading of your book, it doesn't seem a matter as if, as it's a matter of when.

Yes, so there was a Corps of Engineers who have that big office in Vicksburg, say, no matter what the river does, we can always put more iron, more steel, more concrete in its path and continue to block it. To which Mark Twain of course 150 years ago, would have said, No, the Mississippi will ultimately do what it wants to do. And if it does, well first of all, if it roared through this passage and joined the Atchafalaya, huge amounts of flooding would occur very violently, very suddenly. And it would knock out roads. I mean Interstate 10, which as you know runs from Los Angeles to Florida would be knocked. Out all the bridges that carry the rail, the main four railway lines, you know, Pacific, SF and so forth, down there would be knocked, out so they'd be stopped. Gasoline and natural gas pipelines would be severed. Electricity pylons would be broken. So power transmission, energy transmission would be ruined. I mean, that's all repairable admittedly, but the cost would be frightening. But then all of a sudden, if the river is no longer passing through Baton Rouge, and through the docks and all the various industrial centers in in this extraordinary hundred mile corridor between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, no river commerce. But then no river in New Orleans itself. I mean, this is the port through which most of the American Midwest grain is exported, the soybeans, the corn, the wheat, that goes all over the world. Suddenly, there'd be no river there'd be no ships tying up there would be no commerce. So the farmers in the Midwest, their livelihoods would be severely disrupted. Yes, it could go to Duluth and through the Great Lakes in the St. Lawrence Seaway and through Montreal, but the infrastructure just wouldn't be able to bear it. So economically, socially infrastructurally. Such a disaster would be monumental and the effects of it would last for many years. So it's got to be stopped somehow. And the cleverest people say, Well, if it's inevitable, then let it happen, but let it happen slowly. At the moment the engineers allow some river to flow Atchafalaya already, 30%. Increase it 10 years at a time to 40%, 50% and slowly abandon New Orleans, the problem would be to do it suddenly. Yhat would be catastrophic. But if everyone can accept that New Orleans is a city that should never have been built where it was, and must therefore slowly be abandoned, and placed somewhere else, then that seems like a formula for some modicum of success. But will the people in Louisiana accept such a thing? Probably not.

You have a lot of people involved up and down the river both obviously those who could be victims, but also the politics of it. So as you say something has to be done. So how do you get all those clever people on the same page, and work in a way, which seems have has to be done fairly soon? And oh, by the way, we're in the middle of a pandemic, and oh, by the way, nobody has any money.

Well, you’re absolutely right. I don't want to, you know, say 20/20 hindsight is perfect. But there are all manner of other problems, which is I don't want to depress you undoubtedly, but you may remember that…

Oh bring on more bad news Simon. Go ahead.

Well, I'm afraid more bad news. I mean, the biggest earthquake ever to strike the United States was in 1811. It's a town called New Madrid, on the Mississippi River. It caused church steeples in Boston to fall down, church bells in Charleston, South Carolina to ring. It was a huge earthquake, but not many people live there. Nowadays, however, Cincinnati, St. Louis Memphis, are all within the penumbra of damage that would occur if the 1811 earthquake occurred again. Is anybody thinking about it? No. For the same reason that nobody really thought about the possibility of a pandemic. No one is really thinking about what might happen in and around New Orleans and Baton Rouge. We have to think, in the long term. And that's why, I mean, I know this I’ll draw the probably fictitious remark about when the Chinese, when Zhou Enlai was asked, what did you think of the French Revolution? And he said, bearing in mind, it occurred in 1789. It's too early to tell. The Chinese people, the Chinese government think long term. The United States has to start thinking long term, whether it's for pandemic planning, whether it has to be the future of New Orleans planning, earthquake planning for those cities I mentioned in the American Midwest. We've got to stop thinking of short term fixes, long term, long term strategies. And that is, I hope, what people may start talking about as a result of this pandemic, and to a lesser degree, what might come from those people who read this little book.

You say in the book that the Mississippi River as we know it today is an artificial River. How so? Talk a little bit about that.

Well, it's quite extraordinary. You. I don't know if you've been, Joe, to Lake Itasca, but it's in northern Minnesota in the woodlands. And Itasca itself being a made-up name. It sounds like a Native American name. It's in fact Latin, which means the head of. And the river courses out of the north end of this lake. Stepping stones, little gurgling stream, there's a footbridge across it. And then it flows into where the Ojibwe Indians grow wild rice. And then it turns around southwards and get heads down to St. Paul and Minneapolis and then to the river that we know so well. Well, in 1930 the river oozed out of the Lake Itasca through a swamp. And it was decided, by the early days of the Roosevelt administration that this should not be the case that America's noblest mightiest iconic river should flow out in a suitably grand manner. And so the CCC, the Civilian Conservation Corps, was tasked with producing a dam, which is underwater, you cannot see it, which channels the beginning of the river into a stream so that it doesn't begin in a swamp. It begins with a gurgling little stream and tourists go and have their photographs taken beside it. And so isn't that marvelous? This is the beginning of the 2,250 mile long Mississippi River. It's artificial right from the beginning. The Army Corps of Engineers channeled it put concrete wing dams in it, put locks, put levees, the whole of its length is artificial. And I suppose getting back to this long term thinking idea, what if that never happened? What if it had been allowed just to flow where it wanted? How would the Midwest have been configured if that was the case? I mean, you look at the big Chinese rivers, for instance, the Yellow River, the Yangtze, look at the big Brazilian rivers, look at the Nile. Once you start mucking around with them, I mean, the Nile is a classic example. You cause problems, so you didn't initially anticipate. And so it's interesting with Earth Day yesterday, people talking about leaving things alone, stopping mucking around with them. Well, we mucked around with the Mississippi and we're now paying the price.

At the very end of the book, you use the word and I think it's so apt, obviously is arrogance.

Total arrogance. I mean, we particularly I have to say in the United States, I mean, which I'm a proud and happy citizen now, we believe that we are bigger and more important than nature. We're not. We site cities wherever we want to New Orleans, 15 feet below sea level, in a part of the world where we know that hurricanes strike with grim regularity. San Francisco built on top of the dangerous plate boundaries in creation. One day, it'll be destroyed. Similarly, Cincinnati, Memphis, St. Louis will be severely damaged. Pompeii, classic example of a city built where it shouldn't have been built and we can look at the ruins and think how stupid and arrogant they were to have built that or Herculaneum there. We built Tucson, we built Phoenix there in places where there is no water. Soon we'll begin to see the ruins of their cities. Yes. Arrogance or hubris is something that we as human beings, and particularly I'd say Americans have to control. It's an impulse. We've got to accept that, well, man proposes, as they say, but God disposes. The same as with nature. We may think we're bigger than nature, but we're not. Nature always has the last laugh.

Simon Winchester’s latest is "The End of The River: Why the Long Struggle to Hold Back The Mississippi May Soon Be Lost, Wreaking Trillion-Dollar Chaos Across The American South." The book is available from Scribd and you can find out more by going to scribd.com. Simon, as always a great pleasure to have you on the program. I thank you very much for your time. I'm glad you're well and I look forward to our next our next talk.

Indeed, thank you very much indeed.

Thank you very much again, Simon Winchester’s newest is “The End of the River” scribd.com. You're listening to The Roundtable on WAMC.

Joe talks to people on the radio for a living. In addition to countless impressive human "gets" - he has talked to a lot of Muppets. Joe grew up in Philadelphia, has been on the area airwaves for more than 25 years and currently lives in Washington County, NY with his wife, Kelly, and their dog, Brady. And yes, he reads every single book.
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