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From Mississippi River Tragedies: A Century of Unnatral Disaster, by Christine A. Klein & Sandra Zellmer (New York: New York University Press, 2014), pp. 1-12.


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American engineers have done astounding things to bend the Mississippi River to their will: forcing one of its tributaries to flow uphill, transforming over a thousand miles of roiling currents into a placid staircase of water, and wresting the lower half of the river apart from its floodplain. But despite our best efforts, so-called "natural disasters" continue to strike the Mississippi basin, as raging floodwaters decimate waterfront communities and abandoned towns literally crumble into the Gulf of Mexico. In some places, only the tombstones remain, leaning at odd angles as the underlying soil erodes away. "Mississippi River Tragedies" reveals that it is seductively deceptive — but dangerously misleading — to call such catastrophes "natural."

This is the introductory chapter from a general interest law and history book published by NYU Press (2014). It focuses on a trio of federal water policies developed over the past century that have lured people into harm's way and transformed otherwise natural catastrophes into unnatural disasters: 1) the National Flood Insurance Program, 2) federal disaster relief, and 3) federal flood-control levees and dams. The book contains two over-arching themes: how African Americans, Native Americans, and the poor have suffered disproportionately from federal water policies; and how the regulatory takings doctrine has in some cases shifted risk from floodplain residents to taxpayers.