In Kansas, land of the dry wash and the mud creek, where a trickle of sludge or a slow heave of brown syrup passes for a navigable stream, it is beyond the grasp to know the power and might of a river such as the Mississippi. But for a hint, take Kansas highway 14 north through the Smoky Hills and the Nebraska sand hills, stopping dead at Niobrara and the banks of the Missouri; the river’s wide, choppy waters roll by like a great lake heaving eastward under the surge and pull of a powerful current. The size and force of the Missouri is enough to take the breath out of a plainsman, but this river isn’t the Mississippi, which is as long as America north to south, and much wider than any of her largest tributaries.
Next to New Orleans, St. Louis is perhaps the most famous among the Mississippi’s river towns and cities. St. Louis is where rivers meet other rivers, where Mississippi tributaries merge and roil, hurled along the channels and oxbows and moving over creeks, ponds, mossy swamps, bayous and lakes, cutting through great deltas, woodlands and forests, petrified and alive.
At St. Louis the water gets serious. Above the city to the north the mighty Illinois, like the Missouri a massive river in itself, flows into the Mississippi, and the wide Missouri comes in from the west. The Des Moines, another larger river, has met the Mississippi farther north at Keokuk and Warsaw, in Iowa. Back in Missouri, from the center of the state and flowing east toward St. Louis are the Fox and Wyaconda, the St. Fabius and Salt Rivers, and the north and west forks of the Cuivre, among others.
By Kansas measures, these rivers are big, bigger even than the Kaw, full and fast-flowing. And then there is the Meramec, the largest free-flowing waterway in Missouri, moving east more than 200 miles from Salem in south central Missouri to meet the Mississippi at Arnold, a southwest St. Louis suburb.
Early last month as historic, heavy rains became torrential across Missouri, Iowa, Illinois and the upper Midwest, great river basins heaved with the surge of flooding waters; massive tides rose, and swells rolled across farmland, cities and towns, topping a dozen levees. A rising inland ocean, carried on the Mississippi currents, crested above 50 feet – five stories deep! – at Cape Girardeau, and moved southward. By the end of December dozens of people were dead, scores of towns submerged and whole sections of cities were drowned, thousands of businesses wrecked and thousands of citizens left homeless. It was hard to imagine any hell with greater fury.
AS THE great flood rolled south, those in its wake – citizens and local officials – began filing papers to request billions of dollars in federal disaster assistance, government loans, insurance payments and subsidies, emergency management grants, equipment, and personnel.
Some asked for help, others demanded it. The pleadings and demands for federal assistance came from a sector of the nation where people say they loathe the government and anything about it. In this part of our so-called heartland, red states turn violet with a hatred of anything federal. But at the first sign of trouble, out come the hat-in-hand hypocrisies, the felt-mouthed doubletalk and artful wheedling; seething is suppressed only for the moment, at least until the money is in hand and the help has been drained of its charity.
Weather and mother nature have a way of bringing out the best and worst in us, and so it is with the odious pretenders and hateful cheats who burrow in the great central river basins. Here are people who, like many Kansans, often boast that they toil to feed a nation but, just as eagerly, would freely bite the hand that feeds their own. It is one thing to bellow and brag of fierce independence, but when hardship strikes the middle fingers are tucked away and out stretch the hands, palms up and dependents everyone; all the delusions of self-sufficiency go buried in the closet until the next election or the next disaster.
Such is the power of mother nature and the foible in human nature. It reveals our most comforting lie, that we remain free and independent by simply denying that we are dependent, that we need and rely on the very government we claim to despise.