The Mississippi: A River That Will Not Be Tamed

May 14, 2011

NPR Staff

In the summer of 1993, when many people in the Midwest were searching for higher ground, Isabel Wilkerson packed her bags and headed for the Mississippi River. She was there to cover the floods for The New York Times and would go on to win a Pulitzer Prize for her reporting.

In one piece, she described the river as a "rowdy uncle who gives freely in good times and breaks the furniture in bad and pretends not to notice after the damage has been done."

Eighteen years later, that rowdy uncle is misbehaving again.

Unlike in 1993, when the floods were centered in the Midwest, however, today the floods are "a southern experience," Wilkerson tells Guy Raz, host of weekends on All Things Considered. "And that has additional symbolic meaning, because ... this is a region of the country that has had so much stress upon it overall — from Katrina to the oil spill and now this."

"There's a tremendous sense of, I believe, heartache that is being experienced there and by all Americans as we look upon ... a part of the country that is yet again experiencing this kind of tumult," she says.

1993's Toll

The floods of 1993 were devastating. When the water finally receded, more than 50,000 buildings were destroyed or damaged, and 74,000 people were displaced.

"I had a chance to see the power of water, water that essentially is returning to its home place, which we as humans don't see because we have managed to control it and keep it in a tight channel that never was really where it was supposed to be," Wilkerson says of her experience in 1993. "It's humbling to see exactly what can happen when water takes back the places that it had been in before."

The people who reside along the Mississippi River live a sort of paradox: They rely on the river, yet accept that it will sometimes betray them.

"We live with the best and the worst of the people that we depend upon," Wilkerson says, "and in some ways, the river is a family member that people in this part of the country depend upon."

Deja Vu

Wilkerson says if you look at photos of the flooded streets in Mississippi, Illinois or Louisiana today there is an eerie similarity to the photos of floods from the past. "You almost don't know what year you are looking at," she says.

"When you see large expanses of water and the shell of a rooftop peaking above it that shows you that this is a universal human experience that transcends a particular year, a particular state."

This won't be the last time the Mississippi River floods, and Wilkerson says people must find a way to live with this force of nature — a force of nature that "even with all of our technology [we have] not figured out a way to tame." Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.