The Mississippi is the third largest river in the world in terms of length and the size of its drainage basin. Far more impetuous than other rivers however, the Mississippi is very unpredictable and subject to frequent – and often devastating – flooding. Ever since the French built New Orleans at the heart of the river’s delta in 1718, numerous attempts have been made to control and regulate the Big River. These efforts have been an important part of the country’s economic history and that of hydraulic engineering. The Mississippi Basin is one of the biggest river development areas in the world as a result of increased farming and population density along the shores, tributaries and deltas of the river.
Drilling in the area’s enormous oil and natural gas deposits, and urban expansion in New Orleans has sped up the transformation and destruction of the delta’s rich and diverse ecosystems (marshes and bayous) and made the city more and more vulnerable to the forces of nature. This vulnerability became shockingly apparent in late August 2005 following Hurricane Katrina. New Orleans, struggling in the aftermath of the disaster, has become a symbol of mankind’s struggle to control one of the planet’s most complex water systems.