Flooded

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Even after a financial calamity, America's economic risk runneth over.

by Jim Tankersley

The windows of heaven opened over the Mississippi River basin in early April 1965, and rain was upon the land for half a month. It fell on soil hardened by an unusually deep winter frost and streams swollen with the melt from a heavy, late snow. On April 5, the Mississippi began rising rapidly in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Iowa. Governors deployed the National Guard to build and patch dikes.

The river swept away houses or beat them to sticks, according to witness reports compiled by the National Weather Service. On April 16, Good Friday, surging waters broke through railroad tracks in Bluff Siding, Wis., and raced over thousands of acres of farmland, flinging dazed livestock across the countryside.

From north of Minneapolis down to Hannibal, Mo., the waters climbed to heights that still stand as records. The raging Mississippi inflicted what would be $1.5 billion in damages in today's dollars, a tab largely picked up by the federal government, because most of the farmers lacked flood insurance. It was a level of destruction that few townsfolk along the river had thought possible.

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