The United States Army Corps of Engineers flooded valuable farmland west of Vicksburg, Miss. to save New Orleans. The waters crested May 19 in the old southern city at 57.1 feet, surpassing a record set 84 years ago. The awful choice the Army Corps was forced to make – having to flood one area to save another – says a great deal about some of the problems of the current flood control infrastructure. These measures are now considered advanced compared to those of just a few decades ago.
The Mississippi flood, the second most destructive in the history of the U.S., has finally begun to subside, but others are anticipated to spring up around the country later this year. The New York Times reports that snow packs in mountains in the US west are high enough that, “Fear of a sudden thaw, releasing millions of gallons of water through river channels and narrow canyons, has disaster experts on edge.” Experts can anticipate the damage, but are nearly helpless to prevent it.
The floods sweeping through the Mississippi River Basin and other parts of the region have become an increasing concern not just to the people living there, but to anyone concerned with the health of the U.S. economy. The costs of aid, of reconstruction, of destroyed crops and of lost business are estimated by some to be as much as $9 billion, and that forecast may prove to be conservative. This disaster also taxes national resources. CNN reports the National Flood Insurance Program could buckle under the weight of its obligations. “The massive Mississippi River flooding is expected to leave behind a giant bill for the government program, which offers affordable insurance to people who live in risky areas and then backstops their claims,” the news network says.
As residents throughout the lower Midwest and mid-south are currently experiencing firsthand, floods can be among the most destructive forces unleashed by Mother Nature. Unusually large amounts of rainfall and snow melt, sudden shifts in temperature can all unleash flood waters that can wreak havoc on everything in their paths. Entire towns can be flooded and millions of acres of crops destroyed at a frighteningly fast rate. Oftentimes, the people who flee their homes for higher ground will never return.
Since the U.S. Geological Survey began collecting flood data at the beginning of the 20th century, some 32 major floods have been reported. They have occurred all over the country, though many have been in the Mississippi River Basin, the site of the current disaster. Based on an analysis of the USGS database, and adjustments for current dollar values, 24/7 Wall St picked the ten most destructive floods in American history. We excluded those floods which were caused by hurricanes because their damage can be as much from wind as from water.
The 24/7 Wall St. Ten Most Destructive Floods In American History
The Ten Costliest Floods In American History
10. The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927
> Date: April-May 1927
> Area or Stream With Flooding: Mississippi River from Missouri to Louisiana
> Reported Deaths: Unknown
> Approximate Costs: $2.89 Billion
> Cause: Heavy rain and failed levees
In the summer of 1926, heavy rain soaked the Mississippi River Basin, causing it and and its tributaries to swell and break through the levee system in several states. The Cumberland River rose an estimated 56 feet, a level that remained a record for decades. The flood covered 27,000 square miles in ten different states. At the peak of the flood, 14% of the state of Arkansas was under the river. Then-Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover came into national prominence because of the disaster and later rode this fame to the presidency. The flood also caused an exodus of African Americans from the South to major cities in the North, particularly Chicago, an event called “The Great Migration.”
9. The 1964 Flood in the Pacific Northwest
> Date: December 1964-January 1965
> Area or Stream With Flooding: Pacific Northwest
> Reported Deaths: 47
> Approximate Costs: $3.02 Billion
> Cause: Melting snow and heavy rain
In December of 1964, heavy snows covered the Western Cascade mountains in Oregon. Mid-month, the area was hit with unseasonably warm temperatures that melted the snow at the same time as nearly a foot of rain fell over the region in just a few days. The heavy waters coming down from the mountains flooded a vast region of the state of Oregon, including the entire town of Salem, which was submerged under nearly 10 feet of water. The flood would not subside until early January, and affected major parts of Oregon, as well as parts of California, Washington, Nevada, and Idaho. Over 150,000 acres of land were covered by the flood waters.
Excessive rainfall in March 1913 caused water systems all over the state, particularly the Great Miami River, to flood their banks. As the name of the flood suggests, no major part of the state was spared. The disaster killed 467 people and damaged more than 40,000 homes were destroyed. The city of Dayton may have received seen the worst of the disaster, with its main street submerged by ten feet of rapidly moving water. The sudden flood in Dayton killed hundreds of unsuspecting people. Near Cincinnati, the Ohio River rose more than 21 feet in a 24-hour period. The Statewide Flood is considered by many to be the greatest natural disaster in the history of Ohio.
7. The Willamette Valley Flood of 1996
> Date: December 1996-January 1997
> Area or Stream With Flooding: Pacific Northwest and Montana
> Reported Deaths: 36
> Approximate Costs: $3.47 billion
> Cause: Melting snow and heavy rain
The Winter of 1995 was a strange one for the Willamette Valley in Western Oregon, as consistent, steady rain, rather than snow, raised the water table significantly through January. Towards the end of the month, several feet of snow blanketed the area. When a quick temperature shift caused the new snow to melt all at once, the already high river levels reached a breaking point. The flooding spread into Idaho, Washington, and California. The Willamette River immediately reached a peak of 28 feet near Portland. Roughly 30,000 residents were forced to flee.
6. The 1965 Flood of the South Platte River
> Date: June 1965
> Area or Stream With Flooding: South Platte and Arkansas Rivers in Colorado
> Reported Deaths: 24
> Approximate Costs: $3.94 billion
> Cause: Extremely heavy rain in a short period of time
On June 16, 1965, rain from a series of violent thunderstorms fell across parts of the state, with unprecedented rainfall levels of more than a foot in a single night. This caused the South Platte River to become a massive flash flood of 15 foot high water, sweeping through the entire course of the riverbed from Littleton, Colorado, all the way north to the border of Nebraska, destroying everything in its path. At its peak the river was reportedly 25 feet above normal water levels. All 26 bridges in the path of the raging river were ripped to shreds and carried away.
5. The North California Storms and Floods of 1995
> Date: January-March 1995
> Area or Stream With Flooding: California
> Reported Deaths: 27
> Approximate Costs: $4.29 Billion
> Cause: Frequent heavy storms
In 1995, the “El Nino” climate pattern brought massive and seemingly non-stop – sometimes, record-breaking – rainfall to northern California. One particular storm, lasting from January 9th to the 14th, brought as much as 20 inches of rainfall in a few days to some parts of the state. (break this up better) small streams caused significant damage to towns in the northern part of the state, and the villages of Roseville and Rio Linda were completely devastated.
During the Winter of 1935-1936, heavy snowfall and consistently low temperatures caused a dense snow pack to accumulate across northern New England. In mid-March, temperatures warmed well above melting point in just a few days, and heavy rain began to fall across Maine and New Hampshire. As a result, massive flooding and ice jams occurred throughout the region, ripping off a 1,000 foot section of the top of the Holyoke Dam. The entire Connecticut River flooded New Hampshire and Maine. The river near Hartford reached a peak of 36 feet, a record to this day.
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3. The Great Flood Of 1951
> Date: July 1951
> Area or Stream With Flooding: Kansas and Neosho River Basin in Kansas
> Reported Deaths: 15
> Approximate Costs: $6.71 Billion
> Cause: Heavy rain over long duration
During the middle of Summer 1951, nearly a straight month of heavy rains fell on eastern Kansas and Missouri, with as much as 16 inches falling in a five-day period in some parts of the region. As a result, the Kansas and Neosho River basins flooded their banks. By the time the water subsided roughly 2 million acres were flooded. This is the equivalent of half of New Jersey being underwater. More than 500,000 people were displaced as a result of the flood waters.
2. The Louisiana Flood of 1995
> Date: May 1995
> Area or Stream With Flooding: South-central United States
> Reported Deaths: 32
> Approximate Costs: $7.87 Billion
> Cause: Multiple heavy thunderstorms
Between May 8th and 9th, southern Louisiana received some of the heaviest rainfall in recorded history, with as much as 23 inches falling over the course of two days. The areas south of the region of storms were all inundated, with the final destination of the flowing water being the New Orleans (which itself received more than 20 inches of rain). More than $350 million in damages occurred in the city alone, 56,000 homes were damaged. It was the worst flooding in the city in 40 years, and would remain so until Hurricane Katrina ten years later.
1. The Great Mississippi and Missouri Rivers Flood of 1993
> Date: May-September 1993
> Area or Stream With Flooding: Mississippi River Basin in Central United States
> Reported Deaths: 48
> Approximate Costs: $30.2 Billion
> Cause: Long Period of heavy rain
The most destructive flood in the history of the United States occurred in 1993, as steady rain in the previous fall had raised reservoir and river levels to above-average highs. Heavy snowfall in the Winter of 1993, followed by heavy storms through the spring and summer, caused the already saturated water levels to flood across an enormous portion of the Midwest, affecting Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wisconsin. In all, nearly 20 million acres were flooded, a portion of land roughly the size of the state of South Carolina. More than 1,000 levees were destroyed, as well as buildings, bridges, and roughly 50,000 homes. Near St. Louis, the Mississippi River was recorded at more than 20 feet above the point where it is considered a flood. Escalating the damage – which is estimated at more than $30 billion in current dollars – flood waters would not fully recede in some parts of the region for nearly seven months.
-Michael B. Sauter, Douglas A. McIntyre