Timely and Enlightening: John McPhee on Cajun Country Floods

By James Fallows

The New Yorker has brought out from its paywall archives John McPhee's wonderful 1987 piece "Atchafalaya." This is about the very stretch of the lower Mississippi River in the news today because of the pending decision to open the Morganza Spillway and flood parts of Cajun Country, so as to spare Baton Rouge and New Orleans from being flooded instead.

McPhee's piece, in addition to its narrative and descriptive power, explains the basic forces of nature against which the US Army Corps of Engineers, and much of modern development, have worked. For instance:

>>The Mississippi River, with its sand and silt, has created most of Louisiana, and it could not have done so by remaining in one channel. If it had, southern Louisiana would be a long narrow peninsula reaching into the Gulf of Mexico. Southern Louisiana exists in its present form because the Mississippi River has jumped here and there within an arc about two hundred miles wide, like a pianist playing with one hand--frequently and radically changing course, surging over the left or the right bank to go off in utterly new directions.<<

Those frequent and radical changes of course, inevitable in geological time, are the challenge in the here and now. It's not that the piece is getting no attention -- it's the most popular at the moment on the New Yorker's site -- but it is so timely and, in so many ways, instructive that I thought it worth mentioning to anyone who might have missed it. (Thanks to Tim Heffernan for reminder.)

UPDATE. A reader in the area writes:

>>Check out the Baton Rouge La newspaper, The Advocate. I am afraid that people don't know that the floodway has levees to protect the cajun towns. All farming and other uses of the floodway are permitted with the understanding that the risk always exist that the area may have to be flooded. We know how to live in swampland and love it.<<

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2011/05/timely-and-enlightening-john-mcphee-on-cajun-country-floods/238889/