The Mississippi River, Mark Twain once wrote, is so uncontainable that "ten thousand River Commissions, with the mines of the world at their back, cannot tame that lawless stream."
Particularly, he might have added, in years like this one, with as much as three times the normal winter precipitation from the northern Midwest combined with about six to 10 times the average spring rainfall in states that border the river. On Tuesday, the river reached the flood stage in New Orleans, meaning the water may indeed overflow during a strong storm or hurricane in the coming months. And although the water was expected to crest, or reach its highest point, in areas like Vicksburg, Miss., on Thursday, officials say it may take until June for the water to totally recede.
The perfect storm of flood conditions is familiar to most of the 4 million residents in the 63 counties and parishes that flank the Mississippi River and Atchafalaya River Basin. Still, even the most veteran flood survivors were caught off-guard by this year's record-breaking overflow, which prompted the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to open the Morganza Floodway for the first time since 1973, thus diverting water into sparsely populated land near the river. The Army Corps also blew up part of the Birds Point levee in Missouri in order to release water that would otherwise have overwhelmed the levees protecting towns in Missouri, Illinois, and Kentucky.
"I didn't really believe it was going to be this bad," says retired geologist Dick Sevier, the author of Madison Parish, a book of maps, photographs, and drawings of the Louisiana community. Sevier was born in 1931, just four years after the 1927 flood displaced more than 700,000 residents and killed more than 500. His personal collection of flood photos forms part of this slide show.
See slide show on a few historic Mississippi River floods.