Hidden Mississippi: War on Water

Published  November 2014

antigravity_vol12_issue1_Page_08_Image_0002Settlement and development of the lower Mississippi delta is all about water control and water management. Devastating floods— such as the great flood of 1927, which flooded 127,000 square miles in water as deep as 30 feet, taking months to subside and displacing 637,000 people, primarily African- Americans—made the control of water an economic and social necessity. The Flood Control Act of 1928 sought to tame the Mississippi River via dams, locks, runoff channels, and tried to protect towns and cities with higher and higher levees. But these attempts were inadequate. More flood events along the Mississippi River and elsewhere caused Congress to write more expansive flood control legislation in 1936, declaring it a matter of federal oversight and giving oversight to the Department of Defense’s Army Corps of Engineers.

Rivers were still being dealt with spot by spot, however. A river control project on the Mississippi might not know much about a river control project miles downriver in a neighboring state, or about a project happening on the Ohio River, despite the fact that the systems were inter- related. An engineer located in Memphis, Major Eugene Reybold, raised concerns to this effect: all of the rivers draining into the Mississippi River Basin needed to be studied and addressed in concert to ensure that river monitoring was as accurate as possible, resulting in quick responses to flood events. His solution: build a gigantic model of the river basin in order to play war games with potential floods. The Mississippi River Basin Model would be the largest project undertaken by the Army Corps, a 200-acre concrete sculpture representing 15,000 miles of riverways.

It was a staggeringly ambitious project, and it was constructed under some strange circumstances. World War II, which was ongoing, necessitated that the Army Corps of Engineer’s personnel be primarily overseas, and there was no budget to hire new workers. Reybold needed men to build his 200-acre model, and he needed men who would work for little-to-no pay. He found his solution in the prisoner of war camps scattered throughout the South.

Internment camps, filled primarily with German and Italian units from the North Africa campaign, often functioned as a stopgap for Southern labor issues. The War, and the beginnings of the Great Migration (of African-Americans out of the South), had begun to empty the South of its pool of exploitable labor. Southern governors, under pressure from planters who needed cheap workers to pull in harvests and maintain their privileged economic status, arranged for the importation of POWs into what amounted to labor camps. POWs harvested cotton and sugarcane and worked on infrastructure projects. Major Reybold organized for 3,000 POWs to be transferred just southeast of Jackson, Mississippi, to Camp Clinton, where they would clear the land and construct the Basin Model.

antigravity_vol12_issue1_Page_09_Image_0001The model was built out of concrete and designed to reflect the shifting topography of the Basin. Channels and grooves were carved in order to simulate the different rivers and tributaries. Additional features— like levee systems and railways, little pegs to simulate drag, and folded metal sheets to mimic vegetation along river banks—were installed for accuracy. Water was kept in a 500,000 storage tank. To simulate floods, different amounts would be released at different points, and the water would travel through the 16-mile-long system to different data collection points. It was essentially an abacus for water.

And it worked. It could accurately predict how water would flow through the basin, how a flood would affect one section of a river differently than another section. It took nearly 20 years to build (with only the first few years being done by POWs; civilian labor took over at the end of the War) and was utilized as a prediction model, running 79 total flood simulations, until 1971, when the most impressive and functional scale model ever was faced with something more impressive: the computer.

Computer modeling systems for geological and hydrological events were in the beginning stages, and Congress authorized a study comparing the results of the Mississippi River Basin Model to software developed by the Hydrologic Engineering Sector. It was the beginning of the end.

The Model was expensive to use, simulations took weeks to fully run and analyze, and required a lot of manpower. Computer modeling was more efficient in all of those areas. Although the Model was used a handful of times during the ‘80s and ‘90s, most of the time, computers handled the work of simulation and data crunching. By the 1990s, the Model was abandoned by the Army Corps.

antigravity_vol12_issue1_Page_09_Image_0002The city of Jackson decided to open it to the public as an attraction, since it’s located right next to a public park. But it was expensive to maintain, so the city abandoned it again. But it is easy to get to, and easy to get in—it’s located at the back of Buddy Butts Park, and only requires a short walk through dense overgrowth. It’s long and sprawling, and a surprisingly meditative sight to see—a landscape reduced to data, a huge map and working puzzle. Parts of the Model have detached a bit from the earth below, and rock back and forth like a tectonic see- saw when you walk across it. Some of the pegs, and what looks like all of the folded metal “vegetation” cover the model. It’s possible, if you know the river well, to figure out where cities are located. But you won’t find New Orleans. The model ends at Baton Rouge, a strange omission, considering how our city’s fate has always been tied to the Mississippi.

Buddy Butts Park is located at 6180 McRaven Road, Jackson, MS 39209.

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