LATELY, Old Man River has been doing a lot more than just rolling along. Flood waters in the northern Mississippi basin are now estimated to have caused billions of dollars worth of damage in recent days, while defying many human efforts to control them.
Some towns and regions have been spared by the levees, dams, and reservoirs that make up the Army Corps of Engineers's extensive Mississippi channel-control infrastructure. But the scale of the destruction shows that, when confronting nature's best effort, there is sometimes little that preparation can do.
Considering the rainfall of the last two weeks, "It's impossible to contain the river for flood-control purposes, to a large extent," says Ross Fredenburg, an Army Corps spokesman in the Chicago district office.
As of this writing, the Mississippi at St. Louis had reached 38 feet - eight feet over flood stage and nearing the 1973 record of 43.3 feet. Waters were still rising in many parts of the upper Mississippi drainage area, as heavy rain continued in parts of Iowa, Wisconsin, and Minnesota.
Besides owners of inundated riverside homes and businesses, farmers will be the group hit hardest by the disaster. Between flooding and standing water from heavy rain, the region has lost 2 million acres of corn and probably 3 million acres of soybeans. Worse, the swollen river is closed to agricultural barges.
The ripple effect will cause job losses throughout the upper Midwest. "There's no question it will have a 50,000-person employment impact," says Donald Ratajczak, director of Georgia State University's Economic Forecasting Center.
With more than $1 billion worth of crops now lost, the potential cost to the region could be between $4 billion and $10 billion, says Edward Lotterman, an agricultural economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minnesota.
Damage has progressed to the point at which the nation as a whole might eventually see rising food prices, Mr. Lotterman says. Eventually meat prices, in particular, could be affected, as soybean and corn crops are an important livestock feed source.
In the face of rising feed costs, producers typically butcher large numbers of stock and send them to market, causing a paradoxical and temporary downward pressure on prices. That means that it might take awhile for price increases to take effect, especially for beef.
"There's a fairly long lag time involved," Lotterman says.
Not all Midwest farmers will be hurt by the flood. Some growers in Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio may benefit because they have access to other rivers that are still open to barge traffic.
That means that they can satisfy foreign customers who, in the past, bought from producers in Iowa and other grain-belt states. "The upper Mississippi River was the primary source of corn and soybeans for export markets," notes Phillip Baumel, an agriculture professor at Iowa State University in Ames,Iowa.
Beginning in the late 1920s, the federal government has made a concerted effort to try to tame the Mississippi. The Army Corps of Engineers has spent more than $7 billion building hundreds of major dams and reservoirs, as well as thousands of miles of levees from simple earthern berms to elaborate concrete-sheathed barriers.
A large part of this effort has focused on the southern section of the Mississippi, which has a far greater flow of water than the north.
Ironically, the volume of water down south is so large that the north's current flooding will make little difference.
"We won't even notice it," says David Constant, director of the Water Resources Research Institute at Louisiana State University.