Flooding at the Junction of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers
acquired May 3, 2011 download large image (5 MB, JPEG, 5980x5191)
acquired May 3, 2011 download GeoTIFF file (54 MB, TIFF, 5980x5191)
Flooding at the Junction of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers
acquired April 14, 2010 download large image (5 MB, JPEG, 5980x5191)
acquired April 14, 2010 download GeoTIFF file (62 MB, TIFF, 5980x5191)
acquired April 14, 2010 - May 3, 2011 download Google Earth file (KML)

Unrelenting spring rains fell on the Mississippi Basin, and residents along the river watched with trepidation as water levels surged, wondering if the levees that protected them would hold. Communities worked ceaselessly to shore up the beleaguered levees until a section opened up, inundating thousands of acres. The date? April 1927. By the time the floods receded in July, more than 26,000 square miles of land had flooded in seven states, killing at least 246 people and destroying 41,487 buildings.

In late April 2011, unrelenting spring rains pounded the basin once again, and water levels on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers rose to record levels. The top image, taken by the Landsat-5 satellite on May 3, 2011, shows the confluence of the two swollen rivers. The lower image shows the rivers at normal spring levels in 2010. In 2011, floods blanket farmland along both rivers.

In the face of potentially disastrous flooding, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers set into motion a plan devised after the devastating floods of 1927. They decided to flood the New Madrid Floodway south of Cairo, Illinois and the confluence of the two rivers.

Following the 1927 floods, the Corps built a series of floodways, including the New Madrid Floodway, along the Mississippi River’s historic floodplain to act as a sort of pressure valve when floods threatened to overwhelm the levees. The 1927 floods showed that no levee system could contain the mighty Mississippi River during big floods. 2011 marks the first (and only other) time since 1937 that the New Madrid Floodway has been used.

In the top image, the muddy water extending south of the Bird’s Point Levee is flowing over farmland in the New Madrid Floodway. The overflow into the floodway relieved flood conditions upstream. At the time the image was taken, the Ohio River in Cairo was at 60.62 feet (18.48 meters), down from a record peak of 61.72 feet (18.81 meters) on May 2 before the Corp blasted the levee open. Flood stage is 40 feet (12 meters).

“This is the flood that engineers envisioned following the 1927 flood,” said U.S. Army Corps Mississippi Valley Division Commander Maj. Gen. Michael Walsh in a May 2 news conference. “It is testing the system like never before and now is the right time to activate the floodway.”

By opening the floodway, the Corps intended to relieve pressure on the entire river system, hoping to avoid a repeat of the 1927 disaster. “Making this decision is not easy or hard—it’s simply grave—because the decision leads to loss of property and livelihood—either in a floodway—or in an area that was not designed to flood,” Walsh said.

  1. References

  2. Advanced Hydrologic Prediction Service. (2011, May 5). Ohio River at Cairo. National Weather Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Accessed May 5, 2011.
  3. Gough, S. (2011, May 2). Blowing up Birds Point; interview with Jon Remo. Riparian Rap. Accessed May 5, 2011.
  4. Kosar, K. (2005, October 25). Disaster response and appointment of a recovery czar: The Executive Branch’s response to the flood of 1927. CRS Report for Congress, Congressional Research Service, The Library of Congress. Accessed May 5, 2011.
  5. Opperman, J. (2011, April 29). Rising floodwaters compel hard decisions. Cool Green Science, the Nature Conservancy. Accessed May 5, 2011.
  6. PBS American Experience. (2000). Fatal Flood. Accessed May 5, 2011.
  7. Rochette, S. (2011, May 2) USACE operates New Madrid floodway to control flooding. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Accessed May 5, 2011.

NASA Earth Observatory image created by Jesse Allen and Robert Simmon, using Landsat data provided by the United States Geological Survey. Caption by Holli Riebeek.

Instrument(s): 
Landsat 5 - TM

Flooding at the Junction of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers

Image Location
Image Location
More in this Event (view all)
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Early Spring Floods in Indiana High Waters along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers Rising Waters on the Mississippi River Rising Waters on the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers Rising Waters on the James River Retreating Snow and Advancing Water in the Upper Midwest Receding Snow Sets Stage for Floods near Fargo Spring Flooding in the Upper Midwest Rising Rivers in the U.S. Midwest Rising Waters along the Red River Spring Floods in Saskatchewan Spring Flooding in Manitoba Heavy Rain in Central United States Flooding along the Mississippi River Continued Flooding along the Mississippi Flooding along the James River, South Dakota Flooding in Wake of Levee Breach Spring Floods in the U.S. Midwest and Canada Flooding along the Wabash and Ohio Rivers Flooding at the Junction of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers Floods Spread South along the Mississippi River High Waters along the Mississippi River Floods Continue along the Mississippi River Flooding Continues along the Red River Flooding in Memphis Flooding in Arkansas Flooding reaches Vicksburg, Mississippi Morganza Floodway, 1973 Floodwaters near Natchez Rising Waters on the Lower Mississippi Morganza Spillway Opens in Louisiana Mississippi Floods in Arkansas and Tennessee Mississippi Floods in Missouri and Tennessee Flooding near New Madrid, Missouri Water in the Morganza Floodway Morganza Floodway after Five Days of Flow Mississippi Floods near Vicksburg Sediment Plume in Lake Pontchartrain Lingering Floods along the Mississippi River Lower Mississippi River Remains Swollen Waters Spread Across Floodway above Morgan City Lay of the Land Between Old River and the Mississippi Floodwaters Recede along Wabash and Ohio Rivers Floodwaters Retreat from Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway Lingering Floods in Louisiana Morganza Floodway Lingering Floodwaters near Vicksburg, Mississippi Sediment from the Mississippi Floods Sediment in the Gulf of Mexico Floods Recede around the Wabash-Ohio Confluence
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