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The American River Disaster

Cottonmouth moccasins moving out of flood areas into backyards (Dennis Stewrt/Shutterstock [1])

After I went to the doctor in St. Francisville, I stopped by to say hello to my mother. Her friend Sue was visiting. Sue lives in Elm Park, a rural neighborhood not far from my mom’s place in Starhill. We talked about the little dog in her family killed last week by a poisonous snake. They couldn’t find the snake itself, but the vet who examined the dead dog said there were two inches between the punctures, indicating an enormous snake — no doubt either a rattlesnake or a cottonmouth.

Sue said that in her neighborhood, people have seen markedly more snakes this year, and much bigger ones on average than in years past. She added that another neighbor went out onto her back porch a few weeks back and saw a black bear in a tree. Black bears are rare in these parts, and I have never heard of one in someone’s back yard. That’s not a Louisiana thing.

We wondered if the record flood water has anything to do with driving snakes and bears out of the swamp and into people’s yards. The Mississippi has never been so high for so long. It’s a fact that floodwaters flush snakes and all wildlife out of the inundated area, but the neighborhood where Sue lives is only a few miles from the flooded lowland parts of West Feliciana Parish. The marker on this Google satellite map is in Elm Park:

From a NASA satellite photo, here’s what the parish looks like normally (as in the Google image above):

And from the same NASA satellite, here’s the flood as of mid-March. It has not improved since then, and has probably gotten worse.:

So, yeah, snakes and bears and alligators are on the move. You barely got to see any of this if you were at Walker Percy Weekend, because the town of St. Francisville is built on a bluff. It’s impossible to get down to the river landing, though. The flood water is at the foot of Catholic Hill. Most of the parish west of St. Francisville, and a ridge that runs north-northwest, is under water. It’s mostly swamp and some farmland, and is not heavily populated. But there are people who live there, and they have been suffering for most of this year.

That’s because the Mississippi has been in flood stage for the longest period on record [2] — since January! This is causing all kinds of problems on the Mississippi, and on its tributaries. The NYT reports that shipping in the Mississippi and some of its tributaries has mostly shut down: [3]

The devastating flooding that has submerged large parts of the Midwest and South this spring has also brought barge traffic on many of the regions’ rivers to a near standstill. The water is too high and too fast to navigate. Shipments of grains, fertilizers and construction supplies are stranded. And riverfront ports, including the ones Mr. Shell oversees in Van Buren and Fort Smith, Ark., have been overtaken by the floods and severely damaged.

As Mr. Shell surveyed the wreckage last week, anything approaching normalcy remained months, or even a year, away. To start, he would be happy just to get the power restored.


Across the country’s flood-battered midsection, the farms, towns and homes consumed by the bloated waters have drawn much of the attention. But flooding has had another, less intuitive effect — crippling the nation’s essential river commerce. Water, the very thing that makes barge shipping possible in normal times, has been present in such alarming overabundance this spring that it has rendered river transportation impossible in much of the United States.

The Arkansas River has been closed to commercial traffic. So has the Illinois River, a key connection to Chicago and the Great Lakes. And so has part of the Mississippi River near St. Louis, where it crested on Sunday at its second-highest point on record, cutting off the river’s northern section from shippers to the south.

Today it was announced that this summer’s “dead zone” — where no marine life lives — in the Gulf of Mexico is going to be as big as the state of Masssachusetts. [4]:

Annual spring rains wash the nutrients used in fertilizers and sewage into the Mississippi. That fresh water, less dense than ocean water, sits on top of the ocean, preventing oxygen from mixing through the water column. Eventually those freshwater nutrients can spur a burst of algal growth, which consumes oxygen as the plants decompose.

The resulting patch of low-oxygen waters leads to a condition called hypoxia, where animals in the area suffocate and die. Scientists estimate that this year the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico will spread for just over or just under 8,000 square miles across the continental shelf situated off the coast.

It’s the record flooding that’s making it worse, because it’s sending more fertilizer and sewage down the river.

Meanwhile, the US Army Corps of Engineers has had to open the Bonnet Carré Spillway on the Mississippi to relieve pressure on from the flood on New Orleans levees. It sends a great deal of river water into Lake Pontchartrain, from where it flows out into the Gulf. The fresh water has killed an estimated 70 percent of Mississippi’s oyster crop, and has to this point wiped out an estimated 35 percent of this year’s crab harvest. [5] You can see from this Google map how the geography works out. The marker is on the swampy land connecting the Mississippi River to Lake Pontchartrain (I-10 goes through it, on an elevated span). So much fresh water has been flowing through the spillway for so long that it has dramatically reduced the salinity of water off the Mississippi Coast.

The economic and ecological disaster from this endless river flooding is staggering.

Has it affected you? Tell your story.

20 Comments (Open | Close)

20 Comments To "The American River Disaster"

#1 Comment By harve On June 10, 2019 @ 11:23 pm

This is happening all over the world and it’s the future. While we have no poisonous snakes and bears and mountain lions are normal, bad air quality from the fires inland are becoming a regular thing. While my corner of the world is water independent the rest of the West is going to be swinging from abundance (200% snowfall in the Sierras this year) to drought and the interior is going to continue to heat up.

The west is currently having a heatwave from Oregon to Arizona (109 on Tuesday in Phoenix).

The window for at best limiting future damage is rapidly closing but for places like new Orleans and Miami it’s probably too late.
Rod, given what seem to be your health issues and the likely future of your area, you should really think about relocating.

#2 Comment By Alcuin On June 10, 2019 @ 11:49 pm

I saw the waters at the foot of Catholic Hill during Walker Percy Weekend. It’s happening upstream, too, I regret to report.

Last Friday while landing in Omaha, I looked out the plane window and saw what looked like lakes on the Iowa side of the Missouri River – farm buildings sticking out like islands and roads identifiable only by the straight line of telephone poles standing sentinel among the waters. This, they tell me, is partially left over from the March floods and part recent heavy rains.

While there, a long-term farmer (he’s mid to late 50s) told me that he’s only had two days (as of last Saturday) that he could plant this year – the next two or three weeks will be critical. He’s never planted this late. Always been done by now.

As it is, he’s already lost about a month of growing season so yield and thus profits are already considerably impacted. As if food inflation weren’t already a thing…


– at one point last March, 70 of Nebraska’s 93 counties were in emergency declarations due to floods.

– Iowa also got hit on the Mississippi side recently as well.

– a meteorologist friend with whom I went hiking in NW Colorado just over year ago told me today that we couldn’t have done that trip this year as that area is presently under 10 to 15 feet of snow. That snow melt will have to go somewhere…

#3 Comment By David J. White On June 11, 2019 @ 12:06 am

The flood water is at the foot of Catholic Hill.

When I went to Mass Sunday morning at Our Lady of Mount Carmel before heading back to Texas, the road was blocked off past the turnoff uphill to the church, and I could see that where the road dips it was flooded out.

#4 Comment By E1234 On June 11, 2019 @ 12:09 am

I’m not even near the Mississippi River itself, but here in the Midwest (near small rivers that are part of the massive Mississippi watershed), we’ve had so much rain that the farmers can’t plant. The corn is pretty much a lost cause — something like 10% of the corn was planted by June 1. Only 10 percent!!! And it’s not clear soybeans are possible, either. Farmers just can’t get a break in the rain. Many farmers in our area say they’re not sure if it’s ever been so rainy, for so long.

And then all that rain goes into our local rivers and eventually makes it to the mighty Mississippi, where Louisiana has to deal with the results of such high water.

#5 Comment By La Lubu On June 11, 2019 @ 12:46 am

I’m still working out of Omaha’s Local, and can confirm the Missouri is still high as ever (which impacted St. Louis, though the flood stage in Alton hasn’t reached its ’93 level yet). The fields out here in Bellevue and parts south are still flooded out. I-29 is closed again.

#6 Comment By FoolMeOnce On June 11, 2019 @ 3:58 am

I feel for all the people suffering, and it will affect all of us, in higher food prices if not outright shortages.

Now, not to snark, really, but how long will the people of the “heartland” keep denying the climate crisis, and keep voting for politicians and policies hellbound to accelerate it? Is the truth finally getting through to them? If not, why not?

#7 Comment By TheDudeDiogenes On June 11, 2019 @ 4:19 am

Rod, After reading a [6] pieces [7] the rain and flooding, and living in Minnesota, which so far is undergoing its [8] year, I was hoping you would post about this.

Best wishes to all those affected. (All of us, really, in the long run.)

#8 Comment By Thomas Grey On June 11, 2019 @ 4:35 am

We are really likely to get rapid climate change from the Sun — there are no sunspots. We might well be about to start another little Ice Age.

In any case, floods and droughts will remain the key real problems with any climate change, hotter or colder. There needs to be a lot more engineering done to support better flood control, and more drought reduction.

#9 Comment By James C. On June 11, 2019 @ 6:05 am

It’s impossible to get down to the river landing, though. The flood water is at the foot of Catholic Hill.

Wow! Isn’t that where you get on the riverboat?

[NFR: No, long before that. Remember how we drove down the hill and down that long road on the ridge to get down to the riverfront? Well, that entire road is underwater, and has been for most of this year. The flood is at the base of that bluff atop which sits the Catholic Church. — RD]

#10 Comment By JonF On June 11, 2019 @ 6:45 am

Re: You barely got to see any of this if you were at Walker Percy Weekend, because the town of St. Francisville is built on a bluff.

I did see a little of it, when Bernie kindly gave me a tour of the town on Friday afternoon. And on Saturday I overheard some local police officers discussing the risk posed by snakes and alligators showing up in people’s yards because of the flooding.
Meanwhile up north the Great Lakes are also at record height this year along with flooding. Facebook friends are posting jokes about the new sixth Great Lake, Lake Ohio. So far in Maryland we’ve been doing OK, and the anomaly in our weather is that there haven’t been any extremes. Come to Baltimore if you want crab. Chesapeake bay has even seen some recovery in its populations.

#11 Comment By Egypt Steve On June 11, 2019 @ 8:59 am

Chinese hoax.

#12 Comment By DM On June 11, 2019 @ 9:15 am

I live in Massachusetts where our rivers were horribly polluted in the ’70s but are clean today and improving all the time. In my coastal town the flounder and smelt are coming back to the river-mouths and bays. Not that things are perfect, but there is a lot of reason for hope.

#13 Comment By Remington40x On June 11, 2019 @ 9:38 am


I cannot comment on the volume of rain, but I will note that a part of the problem is the decision to locate in flood plains and then build levees to preserve the flood plains from flooding, thus forcing the water flow downstream, at least until the levee fails. We’ve seen this in Pennsylvania with the Susquehanna River, where areas on the upper end of the river, such as the City of Williamsport (home of Little League Baseball) are protected from flooding by levees (funded by the Federal government at the behest of a Congressman who represented the district named Daniel Flood – you have to admit to a certain irony there), forcing the flow downstream to flood the City of Harrisburg (the state capitol).

I recognize that flood plains can be extremely fertile (witness the Nile valley and its historic role as the granary of the Mediterranean world), but you can’t simultaneously remove those areas from flooding and not expect consequences downstream.


#14 Comment By JonF On June 11, 2019 @ 9:45 am

Who said the people of the heartland are denying the climate crisis? Beware facile stereotypes.

#15 Comment By JCM On June 11, 2019 @ 9:51 am

Yikes, I lived in NOLA for ten years and never spotted a snake, although I saw plenty of crocodile road-kill on the way to Houma. After Katrina we moved to Raleigh later to find out that Wake County is the Nation’s copperhead epicenter. So, I always compared New Orleans favorably to us that way. I hope that they are not yet spotting these slithering creature in Orleans parish. I’m concerned about our rescue dog and snakes. He came to us with three legs and has none to spare.

#16 Comment By Locksley On June 11, 2019 @ 10:50 am

Keep your cats inside. If you let ’em run loose the water moccasins might get ’em even if the Satanists don’t.

#17 Comment By Liam On June 11, 2019 @ 10:51 am

“I recognize that flood plains can be extremely fertile (witness the Nile valley and its historic role as the granary of the Mediterranean world), but you can’t simultaneously remove those areas from flooding and not expect consequences downstream.”

Yes, which is why settlement on the bluffs adjacent to the flood plain is favored. This is even true along the Connecticut River between the middle sections of VT-NH (a beautiful, rich flood plain, but the towns are up above the flood plain).

The other problem, of course, is that the industrial agricultural runoff contaminates what would otherwise be rich replenishing soil matter.

#18 Comment By Thomas On June 11, 2019 @ 11:17 am

I own a business with my family that sells pumps. If you need help or anyone needs assistance like that I can ship the pumps and material to them. I will only charge shipping and at cost of the material. I wont be making a profit to help out those in desperate times like these.

#19 Comment By surly On June 11, 2019 @ 2:49 pm

Cottonmouths in the back yard? Aiieeeeeee. And you think Sasquatches are scary.

#20 Comment By Lee On June 11, 2019 @ 10:28 pm

We had an insane new record for tornadoes in May.

I’ve read multiple articles about the refugees (and that is what they are) from Guatemala. They are coming from the highlands where the climate has changed to the point that their crops won’t grow and they have to battle new pests that weren’t there before. They were barely managing before but now there is a mass exodus. The # of people coming to our border from Guatemala more than doubled from 2017 to 2018 and we have already had more in 2019 than in 2018. We were told mass migrations would be a result of climate change and that it would be from poor areas to richer ones.

Read another article in the last week about the Russians finding some game-changing bad news in permafrost thawing.

Man, the Chinese are really thorough when they come up with a hoax, aren’t they? They think of everything!