The Corps of the Matter: On the Army Corps and the Mississippi River
It’s spring, and for most of us that means tackling a few home improvement projects: cleaning the gutters, say, or replacing storm windows with screens.
An interactive look at a few current Army Corps river projects
The Mississippi Valley Division of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is responsible for maintaining the Mississippi as a useful and navigable waterway. But some of the Corps’ projects have critics crying “pork.” Click the map below to find out more.
Illustration by Keri Rosebraugh
But what if you took that to-do list and magnified it by millions of acres, billions of dollars, and reliable bursts of outrage from the neighbors? Why, then you’d be the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
This spring, we take a look at what the nation’s legendarily industrious, controversial, and misunderstood agency is up to along the Mississippi River — and what its presence there has meant for both residents and natural resources over the last 200 years.
How well is the Army Corps spending your tax dollars? Do the locks and levees the corps builds help or harm the river? Do the agency’s plans for flood- and hurricane-prone areas leave low-income residents with nowhere to go? And why was the Corps created in the first place? (Hint: It had more to do with the Statue of Liberty than with steamboats.)
Over the next few days, we’ll explore these and other questions. From a look back at the Army Corps’ creation to a look ahead at how it’s planning to confront climate change, we’ll bring you up close and personal with the busiest beaver in America’s waterways.
- A brief history of the Corps, by Jennifer Cutraro
- An interactive look at current projects, by Patrick Di Justo and Keri Rosebraugh
- Cry Me a River: On the hubris of the Army Corps, by Michael Grunwald
- Tempting Fate: Floodplain development is booming, by Emily Gertz
- A Widening Gulf?: Army Corps climate efforts in New Orleans may not be enough, by Mike Tidwell
- Biloxi Clues: Post-Katrina homebuilding project gives hope for weathering severe storms, by Emily Gertz
- Big questions about the Mississippi River’s future, by Emily Gertz
- Grist travels down the Mississippi, by Katharine Wroth and Sarah van Schagen
Stories in this series:
A brief history of the creation and growth of the Army Corps
Today, it’s almost impossible to say “Army Corps of Engineers” without also saying “Hurricane Katrina” and “levee failure,” or “Yazoo Pump” and “boondoggle.” But the corps’ original mandate made no mention of hurricane and flood protection, or even of the Mississippi River. An Army Corps survey crew in 1916. Photo: history.nasa.gov In 1802, Congress established the Army Corps of Engineers as the nation’s design and construction crew. The country was barely a quarter-century past the Revolutionary War — where the first iteration of the corps had been assembled on the battlefield — and it needed a steady supply of engineers …
Journalist Michael Grunwald on the hubris of the Army Corps
Dam, that’s a pretty lock: the sun sets behind the Corps navigation structure at Alton, Ill. Photo: Mark Hirsch Imagine the Pentagon had been caught red-handed concocting its justification before launching the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Imagine that after the scandal died down, the Pentagon admitted Saddam didn’t really have WMDs — but proposed an even larger invasion, because there was a remote possibility things might change someday. Then imagine Congress had rewarded this logic with overwhelming bipartisan support. It’s a silly thought experiment, because Congress — for all its flaws — takes war at least somewhat seriously. But …
Fifteen years after the Great Flood of 1993, floodplain development is booming
Once it was a cornfield; now it’s a Wal-Mart, a Taco Bell, a Target. Here along a stretch of Missouri’s Highway 40, in the Chesterfield Valley area just west of downtown St. Louis, what’s said to be the largest strip mall in the country sits on about 46 acres of Mississippi River bottomlands. Less than 20 years ago, the land was open space. Press Play to watch with narration, or use the arrow keys on the right to advance through without sound. Photos: Mark Hirsch It’s been fifteen years since the Great Flood of 1993 put this land under 10 …
Army Corps climate efforts in New Orleans may not be enough
No one wants to see this again — but can post-Katrina protection efforts keep the Big Easy safe? Photo: NOAA Here’s the good news: The Army Corps of Engineers is “racing” to complete a comprehensive levee system for metropolitan New Orleans by 2011 that actually takes into account global warming, at least in terms of sea-level rise. Here’s the bad news: the levee system under development is wildly insufficient to the growing climate problem, according to many informed critics. That’s because the vast and flat Louisiana coastal area — sometimes called the “Bangladesh of America” because it could disappear due …
A post-Katrina homebuilding project gives hope for weathering severe storms
When Hurricane Katrina made landfall in Mississippi on August 29, 2005, the storm’s 125-mile-an-hour winds and 25-foot wall of seawater ground homes, boats, and businesses into matchsticks across the state’s three coastal counties: Jackson, Hancock, and Harrison. The cities of Waveland and Bay St. Louis, roughly 20 miles east of the Mississippi-Louisiana state line, were practically flattened; whole neighborhoods were destroyed in larger cities like Biloxi and Gulfport. In the end, Katrina damaged over 94,000 homes across the three counties, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, with those in moderate- and low-income communities the hardest hit. …
As Corps series ends, big questions remain about the future of the Mississippi
There are 8 million stories in the Mississippi Basin, and this week we’ve told only a few. As lead editor of this Army Corps series, I’ve been immersed for the last few months in all things Mississippi River. Coming out the other side, I have a few answers, yes, but even more questions to explore. Below is my personal working list of issues that — while perhaps less acknowledged nationally than the spectacular disaster that is New Orleans and the Louisiana coast — rank high in determining a bright or dim future for the Mississippi Basin’s communities, both human and …