Rising tide : the great Mississippi flood of 1927 and how it changed America

by John M. Barry

Paperback, 1997

Status

Available

Publication

New York : Simon & Schuster, c1997.

Description

An American epic of science, politics, race, honor, high society, and the Mississippi River, Rising Tide tells the riveting and nearly forgotten story of the greatest natural disaster this country has ever known -- the Mississippi flood of 1927. The river inundated the homes of nearly one million people, helped elect Huey Long governor and made Herbert Hoover president, drove hundreds of thousands of blacks north, and transformed American society and politics forever. A New York Times Notable Book of the Year, winner of the Southern Book Critics Circle Award and the Lillian Smith Award.

User reviews

LibraryThing member mybucketlistofbooks
Don’t let the title fool you, while the focus of the book is the great 1927 flood (an event overlooked today), this is a book about the Mississippi River and man’s attempt to live with and in some cases tame it. Full of rich descriptions of men and women whose lives were shaped by the river and the 1927 flood, and of powerful men who tried to control and profit from it, including one who became President, this book really grabs you from the outset.

Starting with early attempts to erect bridges over it, to map its courses and devise ways to keep it from hampering economic growth in the Mississippi Delta, through its role during the Civil War, and how it affected economics, culture and race relations in the south, the Mississippi River itself is a character in this story, with a personality all its own. This is expertly brought to life by Barry.

Most fascinating for me was the many ways in which the 1927 flood so profoundly changed the character of the deep south, and how in many ways it set back nascent progress on race relations. In order to combat the flood blacks were forced to work, shoring up levees, hauling supplies and digging trenches, all at gunpoint and without adequate food and shelter to sustain themselves. In many places (particularly Greenville, MS which in many ways was the epicenter of the flood), white leaders, aided and abetted by the Red Cross virtually re-instituted slavery. Prior to the flood, through the cooperation of local blacks and the relatively enlightened views of its leaders, particularly LeRoy Percy (a central figure in the latter half of the book), race relations had seen improvement. The flood, and the reaction of the white leadership to it nearly destroyed all that.

It also profoundly reshaped the labor system in the South. One reason why white leaders were so eager to keep blacks under foot during the crisis was to prevent them from leaving the Delta where they were the primary source of labor. However, once the waters had receded and it became apparent promises of restitution from local leaders and from the federal government were not going to be forthcoming, many blacks began migrating to the north. This caused a huge problem for large landowners who relied on the labor blacks provided, and from their percentage of income from sharecropper activities. It certainly helped hasten the transition to a de facto free labor system which had only existed in name only up until that time; a transition that continues to be a very painful one for the region.

Also interesting is the affect the flood had on presidential politics, and on the eventual shift in the relation between the federal government and her citizens that we saw under President Franklin Roosevelt. Herbert Hoover, Calvin Coolidge’s Commerce Secretary of Commerce was tasked to coordinate the government response to the flood. It was his work, and the positive press he received from it that propelled him to the White House.

Hoover was tasked by Coolidge to coordinate the efforts of mostly private organizations as they attempted to deal with the enormous human suffering that was the result of the flood. Coolidge himself refused to set what he considered a dangerous precedent by providing the type of government disaster relief we take for granted today. As a result he was the focus of extensive media and public criticism for what was viewed as a heartless reaction to the crisis. All the while Hoover was being lionized in the press as the only member of the administration willing to do something about the crisis. Coolidge’s opposition to government relief, however, was a policy with which Hoover totally agreed. It also foreshadowed the disastrous way he reacted to the Great Depression.

In hindsight the resources brought to bear by Hoover were wholly inadequate, and in many case failed to provide even minimally adequate relief. It was this same strategy that he used as President, to try and relieve the suffering experienced by so many during the Great Depression; a strategy that failed miserably and gave rise to FDR and the more active governmental role he implemented. It was also the beginning of the end of the alliance between African-Americans and the Republican Party.

I found very little to criticize in this book. Occasionally Barry provided a bit more detail, particularly about financial matters, than was probably necessary to make his point, but that is a minor quibble. Overall highly valuable book, about a significant even in American history that is often overlooked. Highly recommended!!
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LibraryThing member dougwood57
In the aftermath of Katrina many people are looking for answers and Rising Tide may provide clues of where to look (power politics, forces of nature, and bad engineering for starters). But Rising Tide tells a fascinating story well-worth reading on its own merits.

John Barry's story tells two different tales. One is the futile battle of man versus the mighty Mississippi River. The river is freakishly powerful, seemingly a living thing with an intent to go where it pleases. Great engineering feats were required even to attempt to cage the river, but at the same time there was great debate whether it was possible or advisable to do so. In the end, the river shows itself to be a virtually irresistible force of nature. The book raise real questions as to whether controlling the river is feasible today. The discussion of the civil engineering side of 'flood control' is quite interesting.

The other side of the story is the human tale of the powerful against the common folks. Part of the telling focuses on Greenville, Mississippi in the heart of the Delta where patrician whites ultimately forsake any pretense of humanity toward the black majority as the levee is breached. In New Orleans, the city bosses plot to save the city at any cost - any cost to people living elsewhere that is.

Herbert Hoover somehow rides his rather ineffective role in recovery into a trip to the White House. The flood also propelled Huey Long to the governorship of Louisiana (a subject the book unfortunately barely mentions).

If you have an interest in race relations, disaster stories, power politics, the South, or civil engineering you will enjoy this book. A great read.
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LibraryThing member KirkLowery
This book tells much more than just the tale of the 1927 flood. It is the tale of the entire engineering effort to control the Mississippi, starting in the early 1900s. It is a tale of corruption, power, elitism, race (not just racism), and one walks away with a much clearer sense of the history of the Deep South. More importantly, it shows that as the US grew, the complexity of society became such that no one local community could deal with major disasters. So the federal government became far more intrusive: the type of government we have today. And the 1927 Mississippi flood precipitated it. And Herbert Hoover was the hero of the hour as Secretary of Commerce, propelling him to national prominence and the Presidency. Excellent writing, engaging, and clearly outlining the engineering and technological issues facing people at the time. It makes the Katrina debacle much more understandable and why the Army Corp of Engineers made things worse.… (more)
LibraryThing member janemarieprice
Reading [Rising Tide] was quite interesting. The narrative is really well done – easy to follow and not overly dense, while still providing lots of details. The middle chapters detailing the levees breaking and various people’s accounts were honestly terrifying.

The chapters on New Orleans were very interesting. The social and political structure is well explained. More interesting, perhaps, is the outline of the problems with the levees then, the response, and the current state. Anyone interested in information about the city pre-Katrina should read at least the first chapter dealing with the city.

Also of note are the issues of race. The issues of race in the southern social fabric is often presented as a very stark, two sides of the issue, matter. Barry does a good job of showing just how amorphous the subject really is - with different areas developing different steps to the dance.
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LibraryThing member labdaddy4
A very in-depth look at the 1927 flood on the Mississippi river. The intertwining of so many aspects of the event and it's consequences make for a good, but slow, read. I found it very interesting to read this work after having read "Slavery By Another Name..." The impact of race is the strongest influence on this book about a natural disaster.… (more)
LibraryThing member Pondlife
I'm not from the US, and my US geography is pretty limited. So I didn't realise just how vast the Mississippi river was until I read this. And the size of the 1927 flood is just astounding - a gap between levees three miles across still wasn't enough to contain it.

This book covers a lot of ground, some of which is only tangentially related to the flood. Most of it is interesting and valid, but some could have been cut out to make the book a bit crisper.

I also now know what that Led Zeppelin song is about.
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LibraryThing member ecw0647
This is a fascinating book about the enormous flood that inundated much of the Mississippi basin in 1927. In fact, the flood covered an areas greater than several northeastern states combined. The flood stretched from Illinois to the Gulf of Mexico, and in some places the water was thirty feet deep. In a nation of 120 million, over one million were left homeless.

The reasons for the flood were numerous: a river policy that emerged from the hatred of two engineers (James Eads and Andrew Humphreys) for each other and brought untold wealth to the planters of the Yazoo-Mississippi delta. The social impact was enormous and resulted, in part, for the black immigration north.

Weeks of nothing but rain culminated in an incredible storm on April 12th that dumped record amounts of rainfall in a very short period of time. As comparison, the flood of 1993 filled the Mississippi at St. Louis so it was moving one million cubic feet of water per second. In 1927, just before the levees broke, the river was moving three times that.

The battle between Eads and Humphreys concerned how to best control the river: outlets for excess water to accumulate, or levees to channel the increased flow. Levees create their own dynamic. If they are built on both sides of the river, the cause the river to move faster, the theory being that the faster flow will scour the river deeper. This does not always occur so levees often have to be built higher. A four-story levee breaking has the same effect as the rupture of a dam.

Barry writes well and takes you right into the midst of the political battles and their outcome.
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LibraryThing member eduscapes
After reading "The Great Influenza", I decide to buy other books by this acclaimed nonfiction author. I really enjoy Barry's wealth of background information and ability to see the big picture beyond the individual event. It was a spooky coincidence that I'd purchased "Rising Tide", because a couple months later Hurricane Katrina caused flooding through Lousiana and Mississippi. Like the hurricane of 2005, the Flood of 1927 was filled with scandal and cries of racism.… (more)
LibraryThing member brewergirl
This was a fascinating read and an excellent example of how one event can have long-lasting ramifications that touch geography, politics, race relations, economics, etc. It was a great snapshot of the racial and social attitudes of the day ... and leaves you wondering about the extent to which they may be different today. It also showed how a disagreement between experts/scientists (contain-the-river vs. let-the-river-branch-out) can have a real impact on an entire country.… (more)
LibraryThing member setnahkt
Fraught with interesting similarities to Katrina, although the book dates to 1997 and was therefore not inspired by that event. Author John Barry starts his narrative back in the 1860s, when the Army Corps of Engineers and independent engineers James Buchannan Eads and George Ellet got involved in a three-way controversy over the correct way to “control” the Mississippi River. The COE insisted on a “levees only” policy, based on studies from the Po River in Italy; the other engineers wanted levees plus diversion channels plus detention reservoirs. Ellet was taken out of the picture when he was killed in the Civil War; Eads and the Corps continued to battle, with the Corps and “levees only” winning.


The theory behind “levees only” was that when the river was confined between levees, the average current velocity would increase and scour the river bottom; the deeper channel would then be less prone to flooding. The probably did work fine in Italy, where the levees along the Po defined the river channel; Mississippi levees were often more than a mile away from the average channel – thus the current never had a chance to “scour”. In fact, the Corps was so committed to the “levees only” policy that they closed natural diversion channels (all but the largest, the Atchafalaya River – and they were planning to dam that off in 1928). About all you can say is it seemed like a good idea at the time.


The winter of 1926 and the spring of 1927 had some of the most severe weather in history. New Orleans got five consecutive record-breaking rainstorms, and the river rose above highest recorded flood levels all the way from Illinois to the Gulf. Sandbag crews – mostly conscripted blacks – worked full time, and guards – all white – supervised and patrolled (if you are on, say, the west bank of the river, and the levee on the east bank happens to break, you’re saved. A lot of people noted that somebody else’s levee could be encouraged to break at the right spot with a few dozen sticks of dynamite. A number of dynamiters or alleged dynamiters were shot).


Although the engineering and hydraulic discussions are fairly good for a non-engineer, most of Barry’s enthusiasm is for people. The book really has no heroes, with the possible exception of Eads and LeRoy Percy, a traditional “Southern gentleman” and landowner in Greeneville, Mississippi. Barry is hard on every president involved – Wilson was a “dictator” created a “red scare”, reintroduced segregation and allowed the Ku Klux Klan to be reborn. In Centralia, Washington in 1919, veterans – not Klansmen, but American Legion members acting on Wilson’s “Americanism” program, dragged Wobbly Wesley Everest from jail, hanged him from a bridge, and used his body for target practice. The coroner ruled it a suicide.


Harding didn’t last long enough to incur Barry’s ire, but Coolidge is castigated for “doing nothing” about the flood. He doesn’t like most of the locals, either – landowners refused to evacuate blacks from threatened areas, worrying that if they left they would never come back (probably correctly). Even Percy, who had spoken out against the Klan, was worried about a black farm worker exodus. (Greenville was a remarkably tolerant city for the time and place; residents once broke into the jail and lynched a white man who had murdered a popular black resident. Not exactly due process, but it’s the thought that counts).


Eventually the inevitable happened and the levee at Mound City, Mississippi failed. A patrol noticed a small stream of water – two feet wide and one foot deep – overtopping the levee. By the time they got sandbaggers, it was a torrent, and in a few minutes the entire levee gave way. Other levees on the west side also broke, and the Atchafalaya carried away more water than the Mississippi did at normal flow (oddly, this saved New Orleans).


The disaster was vastly greater than Katrina – millions of acres were flooded. The death toll is unknown – most were blacks that nobody counted – but estimated to be in the thousands. Coolidge finally appointed Herbert Hoover the “flood czar” and gave him direct control over all Federal agencies (although most relief work was actually done by the Red Cross, the military did contribute tents, bedding, and airplanes to hunt for survivors). Barry doesn’t have much use for Hoover, either; he acknowledges that Hoover did an adequate job as the “flood czar” but accuses him of racial favoritism and of starting the reversal of the “Solid South”; Barry claims Hoover quietly abandoned the few blacks in the south who could vote (and who always voted Republican) in exchange for a “lily-white” southern Republican base.


All and all, pretty interesting. I’m a little skeptical of some of Barry’s commentary on individuals – he often writes as if he could read minds. Nevertheless, this was something I knew nothing about, and the role reversal of Democrats and Republicans provided some cognitive dissonance. Four stars, I think.
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LibraryThing member christinejoseph
@ Miss. Flood — 1927
Pg 26 Eads — so passionate @ river not see it, embrace it, bullied, whipped, pulled, by river — like sand/storm in an intense storm — levees w/outlets confine water release water
Man w/ Nature —
Old View — gov't stay away — Red cross + Indiv'ls did nill to provide for victims — (even though gov't had a high deficit)
Shift of African-Amers to Democ. Party
good — Learning — Story

In 1927, the Mississippi River swept across an area roughly equal in size to Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Vermont combined, leaving water as deep as thirty feet on the land stretching from Illinois and Missouri south to the Gulf of Mexico. Close to a million people—in a nation of 120 million—were forced out of their homes. Some estimates place the death toll in the thousands. The Red Cross fed nearly 700,000 refugees for months. Rising Tide is the story of this forgotten event, the greatest natural disaster this country has ever known. But it is not simply a tale of disaster. The flood transformed part of the nation and had a major cultural and political impact on the rest.
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LibraryThing member Magatha
Fascinating history of the river itself, the settling of the Delta region, race relations, and the development of - and contradictions within - both 19th and 20th century concepts of science and engineering. Early in the book, Barry discusses the dissension involved in establishing an authority to manage the Mississippi Valley region: would it be a scientific enterprise or a bureaucratic project? He notes: "Science...does not compromise. Instead, science forces ideas to compete in a dynamic process. This competition refines or replaces old hypotheses, gradually approaching a more perfect representation of the truth, although one can reach truth no more than one can reach infinity."

He goes on to describe how the Mississippi River commission became a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers bureaucracy. "The natural process of bureaucracy...tends to compromise competing ideas...then adopts the compromise as truth and incorporates it into its being...."

And as we see here, it led to a series of disasters that could have been mitigated or avoided. In many facets of American life, this basic confusion about or disregard of the scientific process continues to be a profound impediment to our progress.
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LibraryThing member snash
An excellent and fascinating look at the Mississippi River, attempts to control it, politics, race relations, and the persons wielding power. Yet another story illustrating the self-serving underhanded use of power to the detriment of the ordinary person.
LibraryThing member RoxieT
Very well written narrative nonfiction novel. The amount of depth into the subject matter was great for someone like me who loves all the details. The book also highlighted for me (even more so) the passive “attempts” out government has taken to improve race relations—despite opportunities to possibly do so.
LibraryThing member FKarr
narrative of the 1927 Mississippi River Flood; interesting descriptions of conflict betw races and social classes of post-Reconstruction South; much detail on political maneuvers, old-boy network, less on engineering or environment
LibraryThing member peteschramm
story about the great Mississippi flood of 1927.

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