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. American law has aided and abetted these feats. 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.
A Century of Unnatural Disaster reveals that it is seductively deceptive – but horribly misleading – to call such catastrophes "natural." Authors Christine A. Klein and Sandra B. Zellmer present a sympathetic account of the human dreams, pride, and foibles that got us to this point, weaving together engaging historical narratives and accessible law stories drawn from actual courtroom dramas. The authors deftly uncover the larger story of how the law reflects and even amplifies our ambivalent attitude toward nature – simultaneously revering wild rivers and places for what they are, while working feverishly to change them into something else.
Despite their sobering revelations, the authors' final message is one of hope. Although the acknowledgement of human responsibility for unnatural disasters can lead to blame, guilt, and liability, it can also prod us to confront the consequences of our actions, leading to a liberating sense of possibility and to the knowledge necessary to avoid future disasters.
Christine A. Klein is the Chesterfield Smith Professor of Law at the University of Florida Levin College of Law and is co-author of Natural Resources Law: A Place-Based Book of Problems and Cases (Aspen Publishers).
Sandra B. Zellmer holds the Robert B. Daugherty Chair at the University of Nebraska College of Law and is co-author of Natural Resources Law (West).
"With grace and passion, Christine Klein and Sandra Zellmer intertwine river history with legal history in a powerful indictment of human efforts to control the Mississippi River. Anchoring personal stories in horrendous floods and destructive hurricanes, Klein and Zellmer critique the mission of the federal government to create 'floodless floodplains,' a myopic (and ironic) quest to conquer nature that ends up producing 'unnatural' disasters. Along the way, federal taxpayers funded immense flood control projects, subsidized flood insurance, and then, provided disaster relief to those who built in the floodplains. Sometimes repeatedly. Mississippi River Tragedies uses this absurd narrative to call for comprehensive reform of flood control policy. Anyone who loves rivers will find compelling Klein and Zellmer's pitch-perfect plea for 'giving rivers room to flood.'"
– Robert Glennon, Regents' Professor, University of Arizona
"Klein and Zellmer have provided a thoroughly engaging account of the human contributions to so-called 'natural' disasters that reads like a good mystery novel. By deftly weaving together a compelling historical narrative of the recurrent floods of the Mississippi River with legal and public policy analysis, they have produced a standard-setting contribution to the increasingly salient field of disaster law. The detailed vignettes of the heroes and rogues of the devastating River floods bring to life and deepen the impression of the book's key lessons on natural resource management policies. Written by two of the nation's top environmental and water law scholars, the book provides imaginative and persuasive solutions to the problems that result from policies that create incentives to aggravate rather than minimize flood risks."
– Robert L. Glicksman, J.B. & Maurice C. Shapiro Professor of Environmental Law, George Washington University Law School
"A lyrical natural history and smart legal analysis of the Mississippi River. Like all great river guides, Christine Klein and Sandra Zellmer double as historians and entertainers as they use the Mississippi to explain America's often-confounding water laws. Mississippi River Tragedies exposes how U.S. water law and policy create flood and other natural disasters – and offers specific solutions for the changes needed to prevent them. A must-read for anyone interested in the kinds of answers that help keep rivers free as they keep people safe from harm."
– Cynthia Barnett, author of Blue Revolution: Unmaking America's Water Crisis
"Mississippi River Tragedies is a stunning and important book. It tells a sweeping tale of folly, greed, ignorance, injustice, and unintended consequences. We all should heed its lessons."
– David Baron, author of The Beast in the Garden