A detailed chronicle of how the wild Mississippi will eventually deliver a cataclysm
Beyond Control reveals the Mississippi as a waterway of change, unnaturally confined by ever-larger levees and control structures. During the great flood of 1973, the current scoured a hole beneath the main structure near Baton Rouge and enlarged a pre-existing football-field-size crater. That night the Mississippi River nearly changed its course for a shorter and steeper path to the sea. Such a map-changing reconfiguration of the country's largest river would bear national significance as well as disastrous consequences for New Orleans and towns like Morgan City, at the mouth of the Atchafalaya River. Since 1973, the US Army Corps of Engineers Control Complex at Old River has kept the Mississippi from jumping out of its historic channel and plunging through the Atchafalaya Basin to the Gulf of Mexico.
Beyond Control traces the history of this phenomenon, beginning with a major channel shift around 3,000 years ago. By the time European colonists began to explore the Lower Mississippi Valley, a unique confluence of waterways had formed where the Red River joined the Mississippi, and the Atchafalaya River flowed out into the Atchafalaya Basin. A series of human alterations to this potentially volatile web of rivers, starting with a bend cutoff in 1831 by Captain Henry Miller Shreve, set the forces in motion for the Mississippi's move into the Atchafalaya Basin.
Told against the backdrop of the Lower Mississippi River's impending diversion, Beyond Control's chapters chronicle historic floods, rising flood crests, a changing strategy for flood protection, and competing interests in the management of the Old River outlet. Beyond Control is both a history and a close look at an inexorable, living process happening now in the twenty-first century.
James F. Barnett, Jr., Natchez, Mississippi, is author of The Natchez Indians: A History to 1735 and Mississippi's American Indians, both published by University Press of Mississippi. His work has appeared in the Journal of Mississippi History, Mississippi Archaeology, and Southern Quarterly. He is retired as director of the Historic Properties Division with the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.