As physically powerful as the Mississippi River is, its symbolism is much bigger, according to John Barry, author of the 1997 book Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America, and guest speaker at the 70th Delta Council annual meeting held May 6 in Cleveland, Miss.
Barry said the mere fact that he, a Rhode Island native, elected to write a book concerning the river is representative of its national appeal.
“The Mississippi River is the heart and soul of America. It's a mythical form, and as close as you are here to it, I really don't know how much you can appreciate what it means to everyone else in the United States and really, every informed person in the world,” Barry told the audience in the Delta State University auditorium.
Rising Tide chronicles the devastating flood of the Mississippi River 85 years ago, one that changed the nation's landscape socially, politically and economically.
The theme of the meeting was, “The River that Connects.” Barry was invited to speak about the river's power. He cited several examples, including one anecdote that relayed how Albert Einstein's son was ultimately unable to quantify the river's magnificent, complex force into a unified equation.
He observed that all the land extending from Cape Girardeau, Mo., south to the Gulf of Mexico, was, at one time, only ocean, but later materialized thanks to the river's vast sediment deposit.
“That is more land than all of the territory of five of the original states, to give you some sense,” he said.
Also invited to speak was Major General Don Riley, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, former commander of the Corps' Mississippi Valley Division in Vicksburg, and now a Corps official in Washington D.C.
He called the river one of “action and service. Although we have accomplished over the years much flood control work, and been fairly successful, you still endure flooding here in the Delta both from backwater from the river and from induced channel flooding,” he acknowledged. “So it remains important that we, the Corps of Engineers, the Delta Council, the people of the Delta and people of the valley, work together.”
Riley emphasized that choosing and then pursuing engineering work on the river is a triangular balance of flood control, economic development and environmental enhancement.
“It is diligent work that can't be done in isolation,” he added. “Everyone plays a role.”
He described the cooperation of labor between the Delta residents and the Corps as a “partnership of hope.”
Finally, Riley expressed confidence about the future of floodwater containment work in the Delta because, he said, of the opportunity to work with “dedicated Delta Council members who make daily decisions that affect the lives of thousands.”