America’s Last Top Model

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
In 1883, Samuel Clemens, alias Mark Twain, published his memoir ‘Life On the Mississippi’. In it, Twain describes his love for the great river and how it captured his imagination from boyhood. In fact, the pen name Mark Twain is probably a reference to what a deckhand on a Mississippi riverboat would call out to indicate a depth of two fathoms.

Archive Tape:
“Twain… twain.”

Roman Mars:
These are recordings from a real steamboat worker from 1939.

Ryan Kailath:
Twain would have heard this call many times. As a young man, he worked as a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi. This was a job that required him to learn everything there is to know about the river.

Roman Mars:
That’s Ryan Kailath. He’s a reporter at New Orleans Public Radio.

Ryan Kailath:
Working on steamboats, Twain would come to memorize every shoal, bend, rock, island, bluff reef, wind reef, eddy, snag, sandbar, and he would learn how all those things changed. When the river was high or when it was low, and calm breezes, high winds at nighttime and daytime. Twain wrote, ‘the face of the water became a wonderful book’.

Mark Twain:
“There never was so wonderful a book written by a man.”

Roman Mars:
Mark Twain loved working on the river, but he found it came with a price. As he gained knowledge about the workings of the Mississippi, he began to lose something too. His sense of wonder about the great river. Twain writes about this in his memoir.

Mark Twain:
“I had lost something which could never be restored to me while I lived. All the grace, the beauty, the poetry had gone out of the majestic river.”

Roman Mars:
But not everyone had such a complicated relationship with the river. For many people who live near the Mississippi, it was simple. The river was a force to be reckoned with.

John Barry:
When you’re talking about the Mississippi River, to me, it’s not something scenic. It’s this great force of enormous power.

Ryan Kailath:
This is John Barry, an expert on the river’s history. He served on the Levee Board of New Orleans and has written extensively about the Mississippi. And the thing to know about the river, especially back then, was that it flooded. All the time.

John Barry:
A river flood, or at least on a flood like the Mississippi, you can see it coming for weeks. You fight it for weeks.

Roman Mars:
And in 1927, people knew the river was coming for them.

Ryan Kailath:
For nine straight months, the middle of the country had been getting hit nearly nonstop with rain, and the previous winter there had been tremendous snowfall up river in Minnesota, which was now washing downstream.

Roman Mars:
The levies were strained, and in February of 1927 they started giving out

John Barry:
The ’27 flood was probably worse than Katrina. Roughly a million Americans, almost 1% of the entire population of the country at the time, were flooded out of their homes.

Ryan Kailath:
That spring, 145 levies along the lower river failed. 27,000 square miles across 10 states were put underwater.

Roman Mars:
It’s unclear how many people died because, for one thing, official counts didn’t include black people, but the death toll was likely upwards of a thousand.

Ryan Kailath:
On April 30th, 1927, then Secretary of Commerce, Herbert Hoover, discussed the flood on a national radio broadcast.

Herbert Hoover:
“Everything humanly possible is being done by men of magnificent courage and skill. It is a battle against the oncoming rush. It is a great battle, which the engineers are directing.”

John Barry:
And you’ve got to remember, this was enormous news. It dominated the front pages. Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic in the middle of the flood. That’s the only thing that knocked it off the top of the news, and after the flight, the flood was back on.

Roman Mars:
In the wake of the flood, Congress essentially declared war on the Mississippi River by passing a law called the Flood Control Act of 1928.

John Barry:
A part of the 28 act involves studying basically every major river basin.

Roman Mars:
A river basin is all the land that water flows through on its way to a river. So for example, if it rains in South Dakota, anywhere in the whole state, that rain will eventually make its way to the Mississippi, which means that South Dakota is part of the Mississippi river basin, even though it’s actually pretty far from the Mississippi River. In 1928 Congress decided to study rivers and their basins. Especially the Mississippi and it’s enormous basin, which includes more than 30 states.

Ryan Kailath:
And not just study them but also change them. The Flood Control Act charged the U.S. Army Corps of engineers with designing and executing a plan to corral and maneuver the Mississippi, to better manage its ebbs and flows so that future disasters could be averted.

Roman Mars:
But the Army Corps of Engineers faced a dilemma. The river control system that they had been tasked with creating needed to be huge, much bigger than anything they’d ever built before, and they didn’t want to just jump into building something until they knew it would work.

Ryan Kailath:
They started constructing scale models of different parts of the Mississippi river basin in order to understand the mechanics of the river. The earliest ones were just ditches cut into the dirt with water running through them. The models helped forecast flooding in Saint Louis, the impact of a dam construction in Ohio, the workings of spillways in New Orleans and Florida …

Roman Mars:
But the Army Corps of Engineers wanted a way to test the entire river system all at once, and so in 1941, they started building a model to represent all 1.25 million square miles of the Mississippi river basin.

Ryan Kailath:
When you think of a scale model, you might be thinking of something you can peer into at a museum. Not so with this one. This would be bigger than anything they could ever fit into a display.

Janie Vaughan:
“It is a jungle out there.”

Roman Mars:
The Mississippi basin model, located just outside of Jackson, Mississippi, is a scale replica of the entire basin region, an area that spans from the Appalachia to the Rocky Mountains, nearly half of the continental United States.

Janie Vaughan:
“We’ll have to crawl through here.”

Ryan Kailath:
“Sure.”

Janie Vaughan:
“I hope we don’t get your equipment messed up.”

Ryan Kailath:
“It’s been through some stuff.”

Janie Vaughan:
“Yeah, I’ll bet.”

Ryan Kailath:
I went out to see the model with a woman named Janie Vaughn. She used to work at the model as a technician, before it was decommissioned in the early ’90s. Janie showed me how to sneak in, right through a wall of poison ivy.

Janie Vaughan:
“And I just always assume that any snakes will kind of runoff.”

Ryan Kailath:
We’re also there with former project engineer, Wayne O’Neill.

Wayne O’Neil:
“I’m Wayne O’Neill. Glad to meet you.”

Ryan Kailath:
Now that we’ve made it through the ivy, we make our way to this enormous clearing.

Janie Vaughan:
“And this is the beautiful Mississippi river basin, Mississippi basin model.”

Ryan Kailath:
“Wow.”

Janie Vaughan:
“In all its glory.”

Ryan Kailath:
“Whoa.”

Roman Mars:
Ryan is looking down in a three-dimensional map, a completely manmade landscape full of hills and ridges and a big winding riverbed. Every foot of the model represents 2,000 feet in the real world.

Wayne O’Neil:
“If you take a good step, you step off a mile.”

Roman Mars:
It’s hard to overstate how enormous this model is. It’s about two and a half times the size of Disneyland, 125 city blocks.

Ryan Kailath:
“I saw some pictures online, but this does not prepare you to see the thing.”

Janie Vaughan:
“Yeah.”

Ryan Kailath:
“Wow.”

Janie Vaughan:
“It’s awesome, isn’t it? It’s just …”

Ryan Kailath:
“Totally.”

Janie Vaughan:
“It’s just awesome.”

Ryan Kailath:
You just can’t take it all in at once. Janie and Wayne tell me that you can really only see all the edges of it if you climb up this four-story observation tower. There’s also a water tower looming above the model with dozens of pipes shooting off in every direction into pump houses and spigots. These big hulking machines and strange looking instruments dot the landscape.

Janie Vaughan:
“And what they had envisioned when they built this, it was just fantastic.”

Ryan Kailath:
Back when the model was operational, there were little signs for pretty much every town in the region

Janie Vaughan:
“Mm-hmm. There would be one for Vicksburg and Rollingfork and all along.”

Ryan Kailath:
The signs are gone now, but Janie still knows the geography of this place by heart.

Janie Vaughan:
“We’re around Baton Rouge, so you can go from Baton Rouge up to Saint Louis in about 10 minutes.”

Roman Mars:
The Army Corps of Engineers started work on the Mississippi basin model in 1941, and at first, they faced a massive labor shortage.

Wayne O’Neil:
“The start of the model came about during World War II. No labor was available. Everybody was off at war. There wasn’t troops or people here to do it, so they built a POW camp here to supply the labor.”

Roman Mars:
German prisoners of war helped with every facet of the construction

Wayne O’Neil:
“And they did the groundwork and the typography layout and the drainage system for the model.”

Ryan Kailath:
By 1949, the model was ready. A staff of 600 engineers and technicians would calibrate the model by recreating past floods in the region. Then, they’d forecast new floods. They would run thousands of gallons of water through the model, recording the water’s height movements. After it was all done, they’d change a few variables and run it again.

Roman Mars:
More sandbags over here, open this spillway over there.

Ryan Kailath:
They played around with the model, gathering data on how each piece of the river system affected the whole. Then, they could use that data to come up with better plans for the future. Like they did in 1952, when Council Bluffs and Sioux City, Iowa were threatened with the flood.

Wayne O’Neil:
“In 1952, the model predicted where the levees were going to overtop.”

Roman Mars:
Overtop as in where the water would spill over the levee, and so they ran the model night and day as they were fighting the flood.

Wayne O’Neil:
“What they were doing is saying, it’s not going to overtop here, it’ll overtop here. Put your sandbags, put your work in this area. And it predicted stages within two-tenths of a foot.”

Ryan Kailath:
Meaning the model mimicked the actual behavior of the Mississippi to within inches.

Wayne O’Neil:
It was credited to saving over $50 million dollars in damage in ’52 money.

Roman Mars:
That’s about half a billion dollars in today’s money.

Ryan Kailath:
The Mississippi basin model was amazingly accurate at dealing with these incredibly complex hyper-specific problems. The model saved the government millions and millions of dollars while it was in operation, and spared people from the kinds of disastrous flooding that had happened back in 1927.

Roman Mars:
But 200 acres of pipes and pumps and machinery and earthmovers and a staff of hundreds were expensive to maintain. The cost got even harder to justify after the advent of the computer.

Wayne O’Neil:
“Late ’60s, early ’70s, there was a big push to go into numerical models.”

Ryan Kailath:
“And that means computers.”

Wayne O’Neil:
“Computers, right, a math model. The numerical model people and the Corps looked at the model said, well, we don’t need it anymore.”

Ryan Kailath:
“Too expansive.”

Wayne O’Neil:
“Too expensive.”

Roman Mars:
Gradually, the Mississippi basin model lost its funding.

Wayne O’Neil:
“We saw the handwriting on the wall, and it was closing us down.”

Roman Mars:
The computer models weren’t as good, but they were good enough, and the Army Corps could not or would not pay for the gigantic river basin anymore.

Ryan Kailath:
The model was used in a diminished capacity until 1993, when it was closed for good. Today, it’s completely derelict.

Wayne O’Neil:
“Damn, this place is depressing.”

Janie Vaughan:
“Isn’t it?”

Wayne O’Neil:
“Crap. Every time I come out here, it’s worse.”

Janie Vaughan:
“I know.”

Wayne O’Neil:
“A lot of labor. There’s a lot of love and effort that went into this thing and it is just abandoned.”

Ryan Kailath:
“I feel like if I was a teenager, this would be my number one come get high and get in trouble spot.”

Janie Vaughan:
“Exactly. Exactly.”

Ryan Kailath:
The pipes and the pump houses are all rotting and rusting away, and in the model, the earth and mud and water have all dried up. Now it’s just a disheveled mess of concrete and wire mesh.

Wayne O’Neil:
“I’ve seen the original design drawings of this place. Those engineers were engineers. I would be doing good to sharpen their pencil.”

Janie Vaughan:
“The minds that came up with all those pieces of equipment, with the knowledge that they had in the ’40s, and they’re coming up with ways to protect people and make this stuff work … You just don’t see engineering feats like that every day.”

Roman Mars:
Now, in a normal public radio story, this would be the part where we would bemoan the death of craftsmanship and remark on all the things we’ve lost by choosing virtual things over physical ones. But before you get too misty-eyed, you have to see where Janie Vaughn works now.

Ryan Kailath:
“How’s it going?”

Janie Vaughan:
“Good. How are y’all doing?”

Ryan Kailath:
“Pretty good.”

Janie Vaughan:
“Hey, did you get any poison ivy the other day?”

Ryan Kailath:
“I didn’t. Did you?”

Janie Vaughan:
“I didn’t.”

Roman Mars:
About two weeks after going to the basin model, Ryan met Janie at the US Army Engineer Research and Development Center, ERDC for short, in Vicksburg, Mississippi.

Ryan Kailath:
“I keep forgetting that you actually work for the army, and badge and the real deal. It’s not a joke.”

Janie Vaughan:
“Yeah.”

Ryan Kailath:
Walking around ERDC feels like being on the backlot of a Hollywood studio. There’s row after row of big hangars full of miniature landscapes.

Janie Vaughan:
“There’s hangers over there and hangers over there and hangers with model and model and model and model just lined up.”

Ryan Kailath:
Engineers zip around in trucks and golf carts. They test all kinds of things here, including a few things that have nothing to do with water. In one hanger, I saw engineers developing a temporary airplane runway. They were driving over it with a modified dump truck on 14-foot tires to simulate the weight of a plane. But mostly ERDC builds scale models of rivers and dams and water projects. Albeit smaller, more manageable ones than the Mississippi model.

Janie Vaughan:
“So we’re looking at Bluestone Dam in Hinton, West Virginia. It’s on the New River-”

Ryan Kailath:
“A place that actually did flood recently, and the Army Corps’ models help to manage that flood.”

Roman Mars:
The Army Corps also uses the models as a public relations tool. The Corps invites people from local communities over to ERDC so they can see how new projects, like building new navigation channels or moving old dams, will affect the area. Engineers at ERDC say they take community feedback and incorporate that into their designs.

Stanford Gibson:
But here’s the most surprising thing I learned about these physical models. The reason that engineers continue to rely on them is because today, in 2016, we still do not have the computers or the science to do all the things that physical models can do. There’s actually this realm of human knowledge and of physical behavior and how the earthworks that we don’t understand.

Ryan Kailath:
This is Stanford Gibson, a Senior Hydraulic Engineer for the Army Corps. This is a guy with a Ph.D. and three master’s degrees and even the math he can do isn’t sufficient to fully describe what happens in a river.

Stanford Gibson:
I think that there needs to be a little bit of scientific humility to say, well, maybe some of these processes are outside of our reach, or at least outside of the reach of our generation. Are we going to get there? Well, we’ll get closer.

Roman Mars:
Believe it or not. Hydraulic Engineering gets into some of the most complicated math there is. Allegedly, when Albert Einstein’s son, Hans, said he wanted to study how sediment moves underwater, Einstein asked him why he wanted to work on something so complicated.

Ryan Kailath:
The physics involved happened on such a small scale that we still haven’t built equations complex enough to capture them, and so, Stanford Gibson, a world-class numerical modeler, is actually one of the most ardent supporters of physical modeling. Because a physical model doesn’t require equations at all.

Stanford Gibson:
The physical model will simulate the processes on its own.

Ryan Kailath:
And even as Standard Gibson develops new numerical models, the process is inherently tied to the natural world.

Stanford Gibson:
When I start a new project, I go and I rent a kayak and I float the river, because there are too many processes that you don’t understand that you can’t represent in equations.

Ryan Kailath:
For Stanford, the more time you spend on a river, the more you learn it’s secrets. Kind of like Mark Twain and all those years he spent working on steamboats, learning to read the Mississippi like a book.

Ryan Kailath:
Did you ever read Mark Twain Life On the Mississippi?

Stanford Gibson:
I did.

Ryan Kailath:
So, you remember that whole, maybe a hundred pages near the beginning, where he’s talking about the Mississippi for him was this magical, mystical thing imbued with mystery, and that once he learned the river, that was lost to him forever.

Stanford Gibson:
I remember that moment exactly, because that is exactly not my experience of science. The idea that science demystifies the world … I just don’t understand that. I feel like the kind of deeper down the scientific rabbit hole I go, the bigger and grander and more magical the world seems.

Roman Mars:
And the same goes for going down the rabbit holes of history and engineering and mathematics and design. If there’s one thing I believe more than anything, it’s that knowledge creates wonder.

Roman Mars:
99% Invisible was produced this week by Ryan Kailath, Sam Greenspan and Delaney Hall. With Sharif Youssef, Katie Mingle, Kurt Kohlstedt, Avery Truffelman, and me, Roman Mars. Mark Twain was played by Ken Teutsch and Herbert Hoover was Sharif Youssef.

Roman Mars:
A lot of the music in this episode came from some of our favorite, favorite musicians, including Lullatone, Melodium and OK Ikumi. You can get a full list at 99pi.org. This episode is part of PRX’s Stories In Science Project, supported by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to enhance public understanding of science, technology, and economic performance.

  1. James Frykman

    This is going to be the episode I share with people when I introduce them to the podcast. Great work on this story.

  2. This…was…awesome. Just when you think you have seen it all, you run across a story that says there is a model of HALF the United States, built by prisoners of war, IN THE 1940’s that will put computer modeling to shame. It is kind of like those jet.com commercials where the top of your head blows off with a purple puff of smoke. Thank you 99pi crew. Yet another great episode. And, thanks for the last chance for the challenge coin. I finally was able to get it!

  3. Cody

    Awh man, no mention of the Bay Model. That’d be a cool companion podcast especially with the tie in of the Mythnbusters using it to help their Alacatraz escape episode.

    1. Henry Kamp

      How could they leave that out?! It’s sooo awesome.
      I’ve spent one day in SF and several hours of that day were spent at the bay model.

  4. Megan

    I really appreciate that you guys have all the pictures on the website, it really adds to the podcasts! Great episode as always

  5. Hunter King

    Ha! I haven’t finished this yet, but as soon as I figured out what “America’s Last Top Model” was referring to I was so excited. I sent this in as a tip a few years ago!

  6. Ashley Gordon

    Months later and I still can’t stop thinking about this model! I’m actually basing the next 8 weeks in my 10th grade English honors class on this episode and a few others.

  7. Anne

    Did you see there’s now an organization called Friends of Mississippi River Basin Model? They’re cleaning it up and hoping to turn it into a park with an education and science center.

  8. Tony Gunter

    The model was abandoned in the 70’s, but some congressman decided he wanted it working again. As a GS-1 intern with ERDC, I helped re-instrument the model from 1987-1988. It took almost a year to get it up and running again, and as a programmer I remember thinking “why aren’t we doing this with computer models?”

  9. April Williams

    I actually visited this today. Even in its decrepit state it’s pretty incredible. So overgrown, you wouldn’t know it was there unless you got in there and started walking.

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