Opinion

After Mississippi floods and Joplin tornado, some hard-hitting geography lessons

Amid a spate of natural disasters, the latest crisis on the Mississippi has reminded Americans that the river is not merely a Twain-era historical footnote, but a vital instrument of modern commerce and a powerful force in draining, nourishing – and sometimes flooding – a large swath of the US.

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Last year, after a massive oil spill blackened the coast of my home state of Louisiana, I hit upon a corollary to the old proverb about war as “God’s way of teaching Americans geography.”

If war is how we learn to locate otherwise neglected points on the global map, then it also seems that natural and manmade disasters are how Americans become aware of this continent’s often-overlooked natural landmarks.

Not many people thought very much about the Gulf of Mexico, a vital international fishery and energy corridor, until the BP disaster gave us all a quick lesson in the region’s ecology.

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The terrible tornado that ravaged Joplin, Mo., last week has given us all a crash course in Midwestern terrain, something that’s largely ignored throughout most of the country unless trouble strikes.

Few Californians bother to consider the complicated ecosystems of their state’s woodlands until forest fires place these wilderness areas at the forefront of the media cycle.

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Meanwhile, a similar phenomenon came into play as the Mississippi River swelled its banks recently, bringing flooding or the threat of flooding to large parts of America, including my hometown of Baton Rouge.

Beyond Twain's lazy Mississippi

Not surprisingly, as the river began to rise and TV news crews arrived to document the anxiety, quite a few commentators, including me, found ourselves quoting Mark Twain to explain the solemn beauty of the Mississippi – and its power to destroy as well as sustain the communities along its banks.

Twain, a legendary scribe of the river, is an obvious source of wisdom on America’s most famous waterway. But to the degree that Twain still looms so large in river culture, maybe it’s because many of us have come to think of the Mississippi as a quaint period piece – an antique thoroughfare for steamboats and frontier folk.

Even a lot of us who live near the Mississippi have mistakenly regarded it as a museum relic. For two decades, I reported to an office a stone’s throw from the Mississippi, but in retrospect, I can now see that I worked near the river, though not with the river. The waterway rarely figured in my thoughts, and I learned to look past it as I glanced out the window at a view that most tourists would have killed for.

My office eventually relocated some miles away to a business complex near the interstate, which seemed much in keeping with the country’s reliance on roadways rather than rivers as agents of transit.

Remembering the river's relevance

But the latest crisis on the Mississippi has reminded Americans that the river is not merely a historical footnote, but a vital instrument of modern commerce and a powerful force in draining, nourishing – and sometimes flooding – a large swath of the United States.

IN PICTURES: Mississippi River floods

According to the Mississippi River Commission, a federal panel that helps oversee river traffic and flood control projects along the waterway, waterborne commerce on the river increased from 30 million tons in 1940 to nearly 500 million tons today, making the Mississippi “the nation’s most vital commercial artery.”

With any luck, we Americans will remember the river’s continuing relevance to our national character – and economy – even after this season’s flood waters have receded into memory.

Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Baton Rouge Advocate, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”

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