Between the late summer of 1926 and the following spring, enough precipitation fell on the forty-eight United States, by one calculation, to make a cube of water 250 miles across on each side. That is a lot of water, and it was only just beginning.
On Good Friday, April 15, 1927, a mighty storm system pounded the middle third of America with rain of a duration and intensity that those who experienced it would not forget in a hurry. From western Montana to West Virginia, from Canada to the Gulf, rain fell in what can only be described as a Noachian deluge. Most places received six to eight inches, and some recorded more than a foot. Now nearly all that water raced into swollen creeks and rivers and headed, with unwonted intensity, for the great central artery of the continent, the Mississippi River. The Mississippi and its tributaries drain 40 percent of America, almost a million square miles spread across thirty-one states (and two Canadian provinces), and never in recorded history has the entirety of it been this strained.
A river approaching flood stage is an ominously fearsome thing, and the Mississippi now took on an aspect of brutal, swift-flowing anger that unnerved even hardened observers. All along the upper Mississippi people stood on the banks and mutely watched as the river paraded objects - trees, dead cows, barn roofs - that hinted at the carnage farther north. At St. Louis the volume of passing water reached two million cubic fee per second - a phenomenal rate, double the volume recorded sixty-six years later during the great flood of 1993. All along the river armies of men with shovels and sandbags shored up flood defenses, but the pressures were too overwhelming. On April 16, on a great bend of the river in southeastern Missouri at a place called Dorena, the first levee gave way. Some 1,200 feet of earthen bank burst open and a volume of water equal to that at Niagara Falls burst through the chasm. The roar could be heard miles away.
By the first week of May, the flood stretched for five hundred miles from southern Illinois to New Orleans. Altogether and area almost the size of Scotland was underwater. From the air, the Mississippi Valley looked like - indeed, for the time being was - a new Great Lake. The statistics of the Great Flood were recorded with chilling precision: 16,570,627 acres flooded; 203,504 buildings lost or ruined; 637,476 people made homeless. The quanties of livestock lost were logged with similar exactitude: 50,490 cattle, 25, 325 horses and mules, 148,110 hogs, 1,276,570 chickens and other poultry. The one thing that wasn't carefully recorded, oddly, was the number of human lives lost, but it was certainly more than a thousand and perhaps several times that. The tallies weren't more scrupulous because, so many of the victims were poor and black.
-Bill Bryson, as excerpted from One Summer: America, 1927
Next time you hear about all the catastrophes coming our way because of climate change, just remember your history. Catastrophes have a life of their own. You can read the cliff notes on the Great Flood here. A more in-depth look can be found here.