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. Rising Tide is an American epic about science, race, honor, politics, and society. Rising Tide begins in the nineteenth century, when the first serious attempts to control the river began. The story focuses on engineers James Eads and Andrew Humphreys, who hated each other. Out of the collision of their personalities and their theories came a compromise river policy that would lead to the disaster of the 1927 flood yet would also allow the cultivation of the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta and create wealth and aristocracy, as well as a whole culture. In the end, the flood had indeed changed the face of America, leading to the most comprehensive legislation the government had ever enacted, touching the entire Mississippi valley from Pennsylvania to Montana. In its aftermath was laid the foundation for the New Deal of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
John Barry's story tells two
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.
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!!
The chapters on New Orleans were
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.
This book covers a lot of ground,
I also now know what that Led Zeppelin song is about.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.