Mississippi River Tragedies

A Century of Unnatural Disaster

276 pages

13 halftones, 20 figures

February, 2014

ISBN: 9781479825387



Also available in




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). 

All books by Christine A. Klein

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).

All books by Sandra B. Zellmer

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. Mississippi River Tragedies 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.


  • Mississippi River Tragedies is a highly readable and insightful book that all law – and policymakers – and water engineers – should read and embrace.”

    Environment and History

  • “[T]hose who study legal history, environmental history, the Mississippi River, and public policy will find this book most interesting and valuable.” 

    The Historian

  • Mississippi River Tragedies is well worth reading.  Students and professionals interested in environmental history, the Mississippi River basin, natural disasters, environmental justice, and natural resource history and law will find plenty of value within its pages.”

    Missouri Historical Review

  • "Christine Klein and Sandra Zellmer have written a splendid and readable book about flood-control efforts on the river that drains much of the continental United States. The book is aptly named—especially the "unnatural disaster" part, reflecting the fact that although we, as a nation, treasure our wild rivers, we often try to check their floods by rechanneling them. The Mississippi River is just one example. The authors have done a great service by putting all this information together into one book."

    Lincoln Journal Star

  • "The authors recite three lessons for people living or doing business in floodplains: 1) Rivers will flood; 2) levees will fail; and 3) unwise floodplain development will happen if we let it.' Their solution: 'It's time to try something different: giving rivers room to flood. At the very least, we should think of sharing floodplains with their rivers.'" 

    —Harry Levins , St. Louis Post-Dispatch

  • “…Mississippi River Tragedies makes a convincing case for the importance of including law in the historical study of environmental change. Accessibly written, this book is an entertaining introduction to the complex history of the Mississippi during the twentieth century.”

    Southern Spaces

  • "Klein and Zellmer succeed in explaining the intricacies of water resources development by avoiding the plodding style of typical academic policy writing. They bring the topic alive by weaving it into a rich tapestry that includes history, personal recollections, literature and anecdotal reports of the human condition . . . . Those who advise others on agricultural development are encouraged to consider the lessons so agreeably described in this fresh book."

    —John H. Davison, Water for Food

  • "Klein and Zellmer offer some sensible proposals for reform: ensuring that constitutional protection for property rights does not serve to shield floodplain development, tightening federal flood insurance, and improving cost-benefit analysis for flood control projects. Most importantly, we must temper our confidence. It is hubris to think that concrete walls and earthworks will tame the river."

    —Dan Farber, Legal Planet

  • "I am renewing my love for the mighty Mississippi, thanks to two 'Mississippi River basin girls' who have penned a remarkable book, Mississippi River Tragedies: A Century of Unnatural Disaster....An excellent book. Whether you are a Mississippi River groupie or not, you need to read this book. Its influence and relevance extend beyond the Mississippi."

    —Michael Campana , AWRA Water Blog

  • "Klein and Zellmer offer the reader a heartfelt narrative of the transformation of the Mississippi and its tributaries . . . . This compact book wears its scholarship lightly while maintaining a brisk downstream momentum in its argumentation.  It incorporates and encompasses the best writing and research on these matters from government, academia, and great writers such as Twain, John McPhee, John Barry, and even Marc Reisner."

    Environmental Forum

  • "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

  • “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