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21 April 2010

Book Review: Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America

by John M. Barry 


Fantastic book. Nominally a telling of how America handled the devastating flood of '27, more-so a book about how politics, ego, stubbornness and pride can always get in the way of good policy. And usually does.

Barry first tells the story of two men who tried to direct policy on how to control the Mississippi; Humphreys, with a huge ego that over-shadowed his logic and Eads, with political power but no influence over the Army Core of Engineers. This section ends with the kicker that what the Army Core of Engineers decided to implement as control policy (levees-only) was the ONE thing that both Eads and Humprheys agreed was a bad idea. And it was literally the only thing they agreed on. Yay Army.

Barry moves on from there to a sketch of a Delta plantation owner who was the force and power behind most, if not all, decisions in the Delta, including how to keep the black population there to work the fields. Though Percy was fairly enlightened as to treating blacks like humans, his bottom line was still economics. He treated his people well but he made decisions based solely on how to create a non-slave society in the Delta that still had the constructs of a slave society.

Next, Barry wanders over to New Orleans and describes the inbred, ingrained, odd Mardi Gras krewe society of New Orleans, a town in which the mayor and the council had no power and five white men sat in a smoke-filled room and made decisions. No Jews, no Blacks. Just rich white guys who cared only about their banks. And their Carnival krewe standing.

Barry then presents a brief sketch of Percy's son, Will Percy (who is a poet of some reknown). Will Percy didn't start out on the same page as his father regarding the place of the Negro in the south.

Which makes what happens next all the more devastating. The damn thing floods. And floods biblically. As the flood is coming down the river, New Orleans and the men in a smoke-filled room convince the governor of Louisiana to dynamite a levee that will flood St. Bernard and Plaquemine's parish, though they knew before they burst the levee that New Orleans would escape un-flooded. But the businesses that kept New Orleans afloat didn't know and the city's economy was tanking. So they flooded out poor sharecroppers just to create, or re-create, investor confidence in the city. And though they signed an agreement to pay claims and damages, they paid out in a niggardly and begrudging fashion, taking people to court. The folks in this parish lost everything and most got no more than $200.

In Greenville, Mississippi, home of the Percys, the son, Will Percy, sent for boats to get the blacks who had fled to the levee, the high ground, off the levee. His father, LeRoy, convinced the men who supported Will in this decision to withdraw their support; if the blacks left, who would work the fields when the Delta emerged from under the raging waters? So though the steamships were ready, they left the levee with only 33 white women and children. The blacks were forced to stay on the levee and sleep in the mud and muck in a make-shift camp because the economic success of Greenville, Mississippi depended on keeping blacks on the Delta.

Meanwhile, President Coolidge, who seemed to care nothing about the victims of the flood, appointed Herbert Hoover to handle the disaster. Hoover shined and paved his way to the presidency, where he applied the same ideals of engineering society, to no avail as the depression blanketed the country. But on the way to the presidency, Hoover used and abused the president of Tuskegee University, Robert Russa Moton, who approached white-black relations with the underlying philosophy that "...the moral force of honorable behavior would ultimately compel white men to behave honorably as well." Hoover used this philosophy to his own end, by baiting Moton with the golden ring of a new reconstruction, which would help blacks find training and education and jobs, as a reward for Moton's support and political strength. Hoover never implemented the plan and Moton, who had campaigned heartily for Hoover, lost face in the black community, clearing the way for the more radical ideas of W.E.B. DuBois and the NAACP.

And in Louisiana, Huey Long was elected governor and proceeded to dismantle the power brokers all over Louisiana, ushering in a new order, just as filled with corruption as the old one, but with different faces in charge.

Fascinating. And instructive. And heart-breaking.

"It is so much easier to believe than to think; it is astounding how much more believing is done than thinking." James Kemper, civilian engineer on the Mississippi in the 1920s

"No civilization based upon unrestrained self-interest can endure." Herbert Hoover