February 10, 2016
Many of us know the Mississippi River for the way it winds its way through the middle of our country – full of life and history. But, if you’re from Memphis, or another city part of its embayment, you also know the Mississippi River for the great flood of 2011. Parts of cities near the river were submerged in water, many agricultural parcels of land were flooded, and river traffic was stalled and even stopped during its massive rise.
Memphis saw a huge surge in water levels. The statue in Tom Lee Park of Tom Lee, in a boat reaching his arm out to aid a fellow man holding on to a piece of wood for dear life, sits a few feet above ground level, but, during this flood, the river came up past the bank, into the park, and up to the statue, making the boat appear to float as if Lee’s heroic act was happening in real time.
The “Gulf of Mexico” at Mud Island River Park was flooded – like the one 500 miles to the south – and the mound at the southernmost point was almost covered, making the flags poles appear as if they were coming right out of the water. The Mississippi River had not been this high since the historic floods of 1927 and 1937.
What caused this flood? In the late winter and early spring of 2011, North America saw heavy rain periods and a large snowfall, which turned into snowmelt. 31 states and 2 provinces in Canada have tributaries that flow into the Mississippi River.
Many people contribute the flooding to the construction of numerous levees and spillways off of the Mississippi River after the historic floods of 1927 and 1937. The river is now being squeezed to a tighter capacity and the water has to travel faster to the Gulf of Mexico. When it cannot move fast enough, the only place the water has to go is up – breaching the levees that were put in place. Arthur Schmidt, a hydrologist and engineer at the University of Illinois, said that “Most years, it’s [the levee system] a good thing. We’re feeding a tremendous amount of people. But a year like  where it just won’t quit raining, you have to look at what effect it has on the river, and how do you weigh the benefits and costs.”
So while, there are repercussions of building this levee system, for the most part it works. In 2011, there was a tremendous amount of rainfall and snowmelt – the levee system was breached a little bit, but overall it worked. “It’s saving a lot of property, and it’s probably saved lives,” Charles Camille, longtime river historian with the Mississippi River Commission and the Mississippi River & Tributaries Project said then. “It’s working and we’re praying and watching and hoping that is continues to be that way as this wave of water [in reference to the 2011 flood] moves down to the Gulf.”
Memphis and others cities and towns have since recovered from the great flood of 2011. There was fear of another massive flood late in 2015, but thankfully, the river only flooded slightly and we avoided any major damages.