The Mississippi River Flood of 2011

As the massive bulge of Mississippi floodwater makes its way southward, we know that lives have been lost, as have homes, crops and businesses. We see people hauling what belongings they can carry in laundry baskets, wading through brown water or rowing a boat to their front door and our hearts ache for them. We know that the water will recede in weeks or months and leave behind a horrendous, smelly mess. For some, the crest has passed with less damage than anticipated; for others the losses are great, and for others the outcome is still very much an unknown.

 The countless opposing viewpoints and opinions about appropriate “River management” are simply mind-boggling. The more I learn, the more clear the incredible complexity of it all becomes. I am not qualified to evaluate or even understand the validity of these often-opposing viewpoints, so for the most part, I simply listen.

What is clear is that the Mississippi River is once again fulfilling its natural purpose, as it always has and always will. The River expands and contracts in order to do what is asked of it. It accepts the snow melt and rain water brought by its tributaries and sets about delivering it to the sea. After centuries of human development along the River banks and massive changes to the structure of the channel itself, the way the River does its job has changed, but its job has not. It continues to serve as the aorta of our continent, draining water from 40% of the land mass of the continental U.S.

 Last fall, when I made my 90-day journey following the course of the Mississippi from the headwaters to the Gulf of Mexico, hundreds of people participated and supported the journey by opening their hearts, their homes and sharing their lives with me. Now, as many of those lives are being turned upside down by the flood, I am searching for a way to be of help.

For now, it seems that what I can do is help their voices to be heard. In recent weeks, I have heard from many River friends and I will do my best to stay in touch with as many as possible. The Mississippi is approximately 2,400 miles long. In places, people have sand bagged and watched the waters threaten but then crest and move on without damage. In others, there have been mass evacuations and destruction. In others, they are still watching and praying.  I’d like to share some of their words and experiences with you.

 At the very top of the Mississippi watershed, the headwaters at Lake Itasca, Minnesota, my friend Terry reports the water level is normal. However, by the time the River reaches Bemidji, Minnesota, just 63 river miles and 31 miles by highway, the Mississippi and its tributaries are already swollen and running high.

As the swell of water passed through the rest of Minnesota and bordering Wisconsin, it seems to have caused days of anxious waiting and watching, but thankfully, not widespread flooding.

My friend, Ellis, in Davenport, Iowa, told of sandbagging and water in the basement, but the River did not crest at the predicted height. LeClairePark in Davenport, where I attended the Mississippi Valley Blues Festival, was underwater.

Karen and John in Louisiana, Missouri, said the water was high, but nowhere near what they experienced in 1998. This time, it is primarily the Lower Mississippi being most seriously impacted.

In Charleston, Missouri, Claudia and Randy say their fields are covered with water that cannot drain – that there is just no place for all the water to go.

I will soon visit my friends Silvey and Sam near East Prairie, Missouri, and see for myself the devastation that occurred when the Bird’s Point Levee was blown up.

 In Tiptonville, Tennessee, Jim and Kathy say, “We called on friends, family and neighbors to build a sandbag dike around our home. We are holding off about 2 feet of water and pumping seep water out.” Although their garden and landscaping is gone, it appears their home will be spared. Many others in west Tennessee, in counties such as Lake, Dyer and Lauderdale are not so lucky.

In Memphis, my friend Diana sent photos of Riverside Drive under water. Though downtown and mid-town are on high ground, the lower outlying areas are inundated. I expect to hear more from them soon and I may get there myself.

 In Clarksdale, Mississippi, the River has crested and the levee is holding. John says, “What will happen now that we are cresting? Will the river fall back down? This all depends on what happens upstream with any future rainfall, and also ground saturation, Montana snow pack, and the mysterious pulses of the largest watershed in North America that continue to evade even the most informed predictions.”

Farther south, in Concordia Parish, Louisiana, Jamie says, “People are loading their homes into 18 wheeler trailers and rumors spread like wildfire. Officials have assured us that if our levee, which surrounds the entire community, should break, we will have plenty of time to evacuate and I believe them.” There is barely contained panic and she asks for your prayers. At the same time, she is deeply proud of her community for coming together and helping each other.

 In New Orleans, the crest is expected next Wednesday. My friend, Jerry, tells me the Mayor is confident the city will be fine. Jerry also voiced the often-repeated concern for people in the Atchafalaya Basin. “It is an ancient bed of the Mississippi River and a far more direct route to the Gulf. It is believed that someday the River will reclaim that way “home.”

I have not yet heard from my friends south of New Orleans, but people in that low, flat land barely recovering from Katrina, may need an extra measure of prayers. Flood stage there is 17 feet and the prediction is for 19.5 feet by May 23rd.

 I will soon be having an aerial tour and a boat tour of the thousands of flooded acres near the breached Bird’s Point Levee in southeast Missouri. I’ll be back in touch with my own observations as well as more reports from River friends. For now, hold onto thoughts of strength and courage and if you believe in prayer, send them along.

And know this – the most consistent message expressed has been concern for others. Regardless of their personal circumstances, I have heard thoughts of support and encouragement for those suffering and those downriver. Yesterday, I was fortunate to hear the Dalai Lama speak in Fayetteville, Arkansas. He talked about the fear that many people carry with them and the antidote of that fear, which is love. While I have certainly heard expressions of fear from my River friends, expressions of love have been far more prevalent. In my experience, crises tend to strip away facades and allow the true nature of humans to show. There is not and never has been any doubt in my mind that our true nature is Love.


Love,  Gayle

About Gayle Harper

Travel Photographer and Writer
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4 Responses to The Mississippi River Flood of 2011

  1. Pat Owens says:

    Thank you for the sad, scary update on those facing this flood. It’s reassuring somehow to hear the voices of those who have survived the possible and those who have hope.

  2. gerry toler says:


    I was pleased to see you say : “What is clear is that the Mississippi River is once again fulfilling its natural purpose, as it always has and always will.”
    And also pleased with your loving concern for those that choose to live near the river.


  3. Vickey Henson says:

    What an awe inspiring post you have just completed. You are like a matriarch Mother marching through the towns from the headwaters of the Mississippi down to the gulf asking for prayers and help for you children along the way. Living along the river you are constantly reminded of the respect you should pay it. It’s like a caged animal that wants to go back to the wild where it has always wanted to be. We seemed to have dodged the bullet here in our area but the people south of us aren’t so lucky. Our thoughts and prayers are with these people in hopes that they will be safe and minimal damage to their properties. Thank you Gayle for keeping all of us tied together with your common thread. God bless you for your concern for the “river people”.

  4. Jim Loughead says:

    Gayle, you have a great gift of communicating clearly through the written word. You update touched my heart for all along the Mississippi River. I will send prayers for all to find and touch that space within them of unconditional love to heal and become more free in their journey of growth here on planet earth.

    I was thinking of you the other day about your past writings of your adventure following the drop of water down the river.

    Thanks for sharing , Jim

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