DISASTERS: The Swollen Giant

Throughout March the watershed states of the Mississippi River system received as much as three times their average rainfall. There were no spectacular storms—just day after day of precipitation, until the earth, already saturated by abnormally heavy winter rains and early spring thaws, could absorb no more. "We were one-inched to death," explained Allen Pearson, director of the National Severe Storm Forecast Center. The runoff gradually distended the Mississippi's major tributaries—in particular the Ohio, Illinois, Wisconsin and lower Missouri—until they jumped their banks last week.

With that, the Mississippi itself became a...

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