200 Years of Illinois: Cal Coolidge, controversy, and Cairo

The 1927 Mississippi River flood disaster had a far-reaching social impact, inspired timeless music, influenced policy that includes what happened during Hurricane Katrina, and received its due in at least one very interesting book. It even roused the laissez-faire federal government of the Twenties and its hands-off chief exec Calvin Coolidge to pass a piece of legislation. On May 15, 1928, the government enacted the Flood Control Act of 1928. The US Corps of Engineers then began its controversial work of building levees and whatever else was necessary to deal with floodwaters on the Mighty Mississippi (also on California’s oft-ornery Sacramento River).

That brings us to the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway, constructed to protect Cairo and other upstream areas, and unpopular from the day Major General Edgar Jadwin, its primary architect, put drafting pencil to paper. Indeed, the project and its many revisions still provoke editorial ire and public cries of “boondoggle.” Landowners and the state of Missouri were among those first (and still) leery of the plan. The Engineers nonetheless finished an initial setback levee in 1932.

To activate the floodway—that is, move massive amounts of floodwater away from Cairo into the bootheel of Missouri—did not require sophisticated drainage routes or whatnot. No, when the rains came and came, the Army Corps of Engineers activated the floodway by dynamiting the levee. This first happened during the 1937 floods. In 1983, the Engineers did add pipes to the levee. Not to route water, but to make it easier to place a type of explosive described in one 2011 article as “slurry.” Which they had to do again in 2011, after floodwaters drove all but a smattering of people from Cairo. Breaching the levees flooded over 130,000 acres of farmland, destroyed homes, and reignited an old pattern of recriminations and lawsuits.