Barry, John M. Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed

 

Barry, John M. Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed
America. New York: Touchstone, 1998 (originally, 1997).

This is a history of the spring 1927 flood, the Great Flood, of the Mississippi River. Its focus is
the behavior of the "important" residents of the City of New Orleans in making their decision to
dynamite the levee on the West side of the river below New Orleans so as to allow water to drain
away from the city. Of course, in bombing the levee, they destroyed a great deal of St. Bernard
and Plaquemines Parishes and, of course, the people resident in those areas were promised
compensation for their losses. But, as the story goes, the "important" people weaseled out of their
promises and the indemnities were ignored. The short-term consequences of the flood were
destruction and deceit but the long-term consequences were much more important and far
reaching. The behavior of the important people of New Orleans is nothing other than a history of
the United States.

The approach taken by this author is Marxist in that he sees the "important" people of New
Orleans, the decision makers, as the bankers of the city. They were the ones who sat on the Board
of Liquidation of the City Debt, the all-powerful committee which controlled ALL the money of
New Orleans. Indeed, it is safe to say that the Mayor and indeed the Governor are not in control
of the city's money: that Board of Equalization is. And the members of that Board are all bankers
(the presidents of local banks with ties to New York and international bankers.) They were the
ones who made the decision to destroy the levee; they were the ones who promised compensation
and reneged on their promises; they were the ones who controlled the mayor and the governor.

Of course the 1927 flood is an event which occurred in the context of the history of the city and
the Mississippi River. This author tried to put the flood into its proper context and, to do this, he
discusses the flood-control efforts of the 19th century and the engineers who tried to control flood
waters. James Buchanan Eads, Andrew Alexander Humphreys, and Charles Ellet, Jr. These men,
and the Army Corps of Engineers, had tried for years to control the river and they had developed
plans and built levees and came up with elaborate plans for the river. The political ins and outs of
the engineering and the personal rivalries makes for fascinating reading: science is not always
conducted according to the rules of gentlemanly conduct! In any case, they built levees and the
result was not always what was wanted.

Engineering became politics when the engineers could not agree on the "right" way to control the
Mississippi. The Corps of Engineers did nothing to help with the engineering problem precisely
because its mission was to build whatever the politicians wanted and, by God, the politicians
were willing to pay the Corps to do things which helped not a whit. Thus, there emerged from the
19th and early 20th century a "levee-only" policy which gave plenty of work to the Corps but
really did not solve the problem of flooding on the river. This policy, it can be argued, was
responsible for the flood of 1927.

Perhaps the most disturbing feature of this book is its description of the culture of the Mississippi
delta, the treatment of black Americans by Southern whites. There is so very much here! This
culture explains, at least in part, the position of the few wealthy whites who made all the major
decisions in the South. This "Southern culture" got translated, in New Orleans, to the celebration
of Mardi Gras and the so called krewes with their all-important delimiting of social position. It's
quite a tale and is unique to New Orleans in this form. No wonder the bankers had so much
power!