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Tom Chaney: No. R707 Rising Tide on the Mississippi

Of Writers and Their Books No.R707: Rising Tide on the Mississippi. First published in the Hart Co. News-Herald Sunday, 26 March 2006.
The next earlier column: Maybe as a poem

By Tom Chaney

Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and the Gulf coast last year [August 2005]. It will take decades for the area to recover.

Nearly lost in the furor of Katrina and its aftermath, is the memory of the devastation of the Mississippi River flood of 1927. John M. Barry's 1997 book, Rising Tide: the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America, tells the riveting story of the greatest natural disaster the nation has ever experienced.

"The river inundated the homes of nearly one million people; helped elect Huey Long governor of Louisiana; made Herbert Hoover president; drove hundreds of thousands of blacks north; and transformed American society and politics forever."

When Good Friday, April 15, 1927, dawned, rain had been falling in record torrents for months. Mississippi tributaries from Kansas and Oklahoma on the west to Illinois and Kentucky in the east had flooded causing many deaths and threatening to inundate millions of acres.

According to the Memphis Commercial Appeal that morning "The roaring Mississippi river, bank and levee full from St. Louis to New Orleans, is believed to be on its mightiest rampage." That day rain fell in increasing torrents as Seguine Allen, chief engineer of the Mississippi Levee Board and his guests inspected the levee in Greenville.

At the peak of the great Mississippi River flood of 1993 the river carried one million cubic feet of water per second. A week after Good Friday in 1927 and a few miles north of Greenville, the river would be carrying more than three million cubic feet of water per second.

Barry tells the story of that flood from the beginnings of levee construction. Rival engineers had argued the issue of levees only as opposed to a combination of levees and outlets since the Civil War. The argument pitted the personalities, abilities, and egos of Andrew Atkinson Humphreys, chief of engineers of the U.S. Army, against that of James Buchanan Eads the engineer of the first Mississippi bridge at St. Louis. Barry's account provides an easily accessible account of the rival approaches to the river and its delta.

Herbert Hoover was secretary of commerce in the Calvin Coolidge administration. In 1927 governors of six states begged "Silent Cal" to appoint Hoover to head a federal rescue effort. Hoover had repeatedly solved "massive logistics problems of feeding hundreds of thousands of people" during World War I under President Woodrow Wilson and later in the administration of Harding.

On that 1927 Good Friday, Coolidge insulted Hoover while speaking to Washington reporters to the mystification of New York's money men. Privately he called Hoover, "Wonder Boy." He said of Hoover, "That man has offered me unsolicited advice for six years, all of it bad."

Yet, five days later in a meeting of the cabinet Coolidge named Hoover head of the flood effort. That meeting adjourned at noon. Within two hours Hoover met with other cabinet secretaries involved and with the head of the American Red Cross. Despite his rivalries with everyone present, Hoover had the President's authority. Relief was on its way. His work would sweep him into the White House the following year.

On Friday, April 29, the levee opposite New Orleans was dynamited. Thus two parishes, St. Bernard and Plaquemines were flooded to save New Orleans from destruction, it was thought. The city had been largely evacuated, as it was during the approach of Katrina.

New Orleans had promised reparations to its over-the-river neighbors. The promise was never fulfilled. Largely on the strength of that broken promise, Huey Long was swept into power as governor that year [January 1928] changing the face of power in Louisiana for decades.

Along the river in the delta behind the levees, the change was also great. Since the replacement of slavery with the share crop system in the late Nineteenth century descendants of the slaves continued to work the big plantations by hand and by team. The flood hastened change to all of that. Tenant farmers lost their landlord-owned homes. The landowners were equally devastated.

Black labor was already threatened by advances in farming machinery. Displaced from the land, wave after wave of northbound black labor countered the flood of the southbound Mississippi.

The flood changed things relating to the river. The "levees only" policy went out the window with the various breeches by the river and by dynamite.

New Orleans declined from its pre-flood position as the wealthiest city in America to an ingrown shadow of its former self. Barry notes that when the banks were closed in 1933, only one New Orleans bank reopened as the same institution. Says Barry, "Only the port, created by the great river and Eads remained vital. The city had become a place for tourists, and picture postcards. Perhaps all this had nothing to do with the 1927 flood. Or perhaps it did."

Barry has told a fascinating, nigh forgotten story, and told it well. In the throes of a massive flood or a devastating hurricane such as Katrina, the larger picture is just not available. With the aid of such a fine historian/storyteller the turbid, turgid river of the past is made plain.

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at

Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749. Phone (270) 786-3084. email: Tom Chaney

This story was posted on 2011-04-17 14:23:31
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