The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers got their first marching orders to this part of the country in 1820 when Congress appropriated $5,000 for a survey of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. As with most other surveys of the time, the Corps of Engineers was charged with the mission.
For the next 60 years or so, most of the work done by the Corps focused on charting the river and removing snags that threatened the wood-bottomed steamers plying the river. Those efforts were later coordinated by the Mississippi River Commission (MRC), established in 1879.
In 1882 a major flood on the lower Mississippi River devastated local levee systems, creating 284 crevasses totaling 56 miles in length.
As a result, the MRC reorganized and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers became responsible for implementing the Commission’s plans – particularly regarding flood control. The Commission divided the Mississippi River below Cairo, Illinois, into administrative districts, each supervised by a Corps of Engineers officer. The First, Second, Third and Fourth Districts were headquartered respectively in Cairo, Memphis, Vicksburg and New Orleans. Thus was born what would later become the Memphis District.
In 1885 the First District headquarters moved to Memphis and in 1890 the two districts were consolidated under one commander.
Flood control was the primary mission assigned to the Corps of Engineers during these early years, but in 1891 representatives of the steamship companies asked the MRC to improve navigation during low water conditions on the river. As a result, the Corps constructed the first experimental hydraulic dredge Alpha which proved to be a great success. Thus we also entered the dredging business. By 1901, nine Corps dredges were in operation on the river.
In spite of making great progress in flood control, disastrous floods continued to plague the Valley – in 1897, 1912, 1916 and 1922. Then in 1927 the most destructive flood in recorded history struck the Mississippi. Deaths totaled as many as 500, 25,000 commercial buildings and homes were destroyed, and property damaged exceeded $236 million (almost $3 billion in today’s dollars).
Responding to this disaster, Congress passed the Flood Control Act of 1928 giving the Corps of Engineers the job of developing and implementing a comprehensive regional plan for controlling floods on the lower Mississippi River. This was the famous Jadwin Plan.
In that same year, the First and Second Districts plus the Dredging District were combined into what we now know as the Memphis District.
When the next great flood struck in 1937, we were in much better shape. Although still a “superflood,” the improvements made over the decade since the 1928 flood significantly reduced damages and loss of life in the Valley.
The floods continued to come over the years – 1950, 1973, 1975, 1979, and several in the 1990s. But with each successive flood we saw less and less damage.
In addition to floods on the Mississippi, the last few decades have seen the Memphis District respond to many other natural disasters. Members of our Emergency Power Team have traveled to locations from New England to Guam. Several floods in the valley during the 1990s also challenged our people, but the flood control system prevailed each time.
One of our most significant disaster responses occurred in 2005 when Hurricanes Katrina and Rita struck the U.S. gulf coast. It fell to the Memphis District to establish the Louisiana Recovery Field Office or LA RFO. Their mission, coordinated by FEMA, eventually grew to include emergency power, temporary critical public facilities and schools, ice, water, Blue Roof repairs, debris removal and demolition services. In its two years of existence, the LA RFO saw to the removal of 28 million cubic yards of debris, built 216 school classrooms and installed 81,000 temporary “blue roofs.”
Then in 2011, on a scale not seen since 1937, the Mississippi River once again threatened to surge uncontrolled from its banks, flood millions of acres, threaten thousands of lives and cause enormous damage. All 10 flood fight areas in the Memphis District activated and quickly went to a Phase II status. Members of our floodfight team worked around the clock to patrol levees and floodwalls, work with local authorities and ensure that the system worked to its peak.
Yet the water kept rising after a combination of snow melt and rainfalls systems marched across the Midwest. The levee systems in southern Illinois around Cairo, in Fulton County, Ky., and in the bootheel of Missouri were stressed to the breaking point. With each passing day it looked more and more like it would be necessary to open the levee at the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway to reduce pressure on the system. Indeed, on May 2 last year that became necessary – the first time since 1937.
The floodway worked and consequently so did the levee and floodwall system in the region. There were no crevasses in Federal levees, there were no deaths and property damage was significantly less than what could have occurred had there been an unplanned levee breach.
Today, we are engaged in a multi-million dollar effort to repair damage to the system that occurred in the confluence area where the Mississippi and the Ohio come together.
The Memphis District has come far since its humble origins 130 years ago. Our missions have expanded and changed, but the wisdom and dedication of our people has never diminished and never faltered. We stay true to our motto: Essayons! Let us try!