John M. Barry: The 1927 Flood -- The Worst in History (Until Now)

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[John M. Barry of the Center for Bioenvironmental Research at Tulane and Xavier Universities is the author of"Rising Tide," about the 1927 Mississippi flood, and"The Great Influenza."]

... Before this, the flood on the Mississippi River in 1927 was doubtless the most terrible American disaster. In one obvious way, it eerily foreshadowed today's. For one thing, New Orleans officials loudly warned that a disaster was waiting to happen, and condemned Washington for ignoring them, just as last week's devastation was widely predicted.

The scope of the 1927 devastation also resembled today's. No one knows the death toll. The official government figures said 500, but one disaster expert said more than 1,000 in Mississippi alone. The homes of roughly one million people, nearly 1 percent of the entire population of the country, were flooded. The Red Cross fed 667,000 people for months, some for a year; 325,000 lived in tents, some sharing an eight-foot-wide levee crown with cattle, hogs and mules, with the river on one side and the flood on the other.

Even amid that horror, as in other natural disasters, people responded by bonding together. Goodness emerged. The fault lines of race and class melted away with the levees, and the commonality of the burden that victims shared created a sense of common humanity. But as days dragged into weeks, honor and money collided, white and black collided, regional and national power structures collided. The collisions cracked open the fault lines and caused America to stagger and shift as well.

As a result, Americans rethought the responsibility the federal government had toward individual citizens. The government had felt little such responsibility. In 1905, a yellow fever epidemic struck New Orleans. Scientists knew how to fight yellow fever, and the Army had completely eliminated the disease from Havana. Yet, before the Public Health Service would come to New Orleans to save the lives of Americans, the city had to raise $250,000, in advance, to cover the expenses. Americans accepted this.

But in 1927, even after the expansion of government during the Progressive Era and World War I, not a single federal dollar went to feed, clothe or shelter any of the 667,000 being fed by the Red Cross. (Indeed, the Army even demanded reimbursement from the Red Cross for use of its field kitchens and tents.) Americans did not accept this. Overwhelmingly they expressed a new belief that the government should help the flood victims and, by implication, other individuals in distress through no fault of their own. This represented an enormous shift in public attitudes.

The flood left other legacies almost as significant. It sent hundreds of thousands of blacks out of the flooded territory to Chicago, Detroit and Los Angeles. Enormous positive publicity created the presidential candidacy and guaranteed the election of Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, who had been in charge of the rescue effort.

Yet his subsequent betrayal of the national African-American leadership and African-American refugees snapped the emotional bond black voters felt for the G.O.P., the party that freed the slaves, beginning the shift to the Democratic Party.

The flood also left a legacy directly relevant to today. It led to the passage of the 1928 Flood Control Act, which was the most expensive bill Congress had ever passed, exceeded only by the cost of the Civil War and World War I. That same bill set a precedent redefining the relationship between the federal and state governments, and for the first time gave the federal government full responsibility for flood control along the lower Mississippi and many tributaries.Today we face a disaster even greater than the one in 1927, and for all the similarities a single difference between now and not only 1927 but the other natural disasters is most striking.

That sense of common humanity, of a shared burden, did not dominate the immediate aftermath of Katrina....
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