Tidewater Review - June 2008
It Jes’ Keeps Rollin’ Along
Rising Tide by John M. Barry, Simon & Schuster, 330 pages.
It would be nearly impossible these days to visit New Orleans and not remember the television images of Hurricane Katrina and its assault on the city. Tourists in the French Quarter or the beautiful hotels in the Garden District are not apt to see the piles of rubble that used to be houses, the FEMA trailers that still shelter survivors, or the ugly, infamous blue tarps, many wind-shattered to ragged ribbons, on the remains of gutted buildings. New Orleans and Katrina are two names that are inextricably linked and will be for at least a generation.
Two generations ago another Mississippi River flood galvanized the attention of a nation. Its story is the subject of the book Rising Tide, published in 1997 but relevant in the aftermath of Katrina.
In April of this year when I visited the Crescent City, the Mississippi River was perilously high. The Corps of Engineers was debating the wisdom of opening a spillway to relieve pressure on the levees. It seemed an appropriate time to read a book on my host’s shelf, one that chronicled the great Mississippi flood of 1927. The catastrophe was not the result of a hurricane, but of an extremely wet year for the whole drainage system, an area that collects runoff from upper New York state in the east and as far west as the Rockies.
The flood in 1927 spared New Orleans – just barely – but ravaged many upriver cities. Flood waters covered thousands of acres, way beyond the riverbanks, in several states. It swept away substantial homes in towns and cities as well as sharecroppers’ cabins. It tore up railroad lines, and those humans it didn’t drown, it displaced.
Like the Nile, Barry writes, the big river packs a heavy load of silt, which it carries a while, lets it go and then scours more from its bottom. That annual deposit of alluvial soil makes the sprawling delta the richest soil in the world. In its fields, cotton could grow as high as a man’s head. The invention of the cotton gin made it possible for a planter to grow unlimited acres now that the labor-intensive job of separating the seeds from the fiber could be done mechanically.
There was one limiting factor, however. Available labor determined how rich a planter could become. Almost all the labor force was black, descendants of slaves, most uneducated, poor and, as sharecroppers, always indebted to the big planters. The work was drudgery, the heat was unrelenting, the insects voracious. Tension between the races was inevitable and those black workers who could manage to save enough for train fare began the great migration from the delta to Chicago. Losing his help haunted the thoughts of every planter.
Controlling the work force was a problem. Controlling the river was a far bigger and more complex problem.
As early as the 1850s, engineers had recognized the capacity of the big river – or more correctly, the convergence of many big rivers into one mega-river – to wreak havoc on its banks and beyond them. Since the introduction of steam engines, river traffic had mushroomed and made navigable ports all along its shorelines.
Using it as a highway was one thing. Taming its burliness was another. The channel constantly changed its position. Sandbars formed and collected floating debris, which shifted with whatever storm dumped rainwater in a contributing tributary, maybe in the far reaches of the Missouri or the flatlands of Indiana.
One faction argued that it could be contained by levees alone, and that their discipline would deepen the channels and make the river run more swiftly, pick up more debris, and “scour” the bottom, which in turn would make the current drop more mud and rocks as they accumulated. That action, proponents argued, would constantly deepen the channel and put less pressure on the levees.
A different engineer calculated that some tributaries could be contained by dams at their mouths, to prevent high water from overwhelming the normal water flow. It was mocked as “putting a cork in a bottle.”
Spillways were advised by other experts, who visualized a system of escape hatches for flood waters, not unlike extra drains in a bathtub.
All the plans had avid adherents, and the result was a mishmash of all the plans, with the most confidence in levees. It was always an uneasy truce.
When the job was eventually turned over to the Army and its Corps of Engineers, the combination of bureaucracy and military rigidity compounded the problem.
To measure the impact of the Great Mississippi flood of 1927, it’s necessary to look at the changes in the land on the river delta from post Civil War to the early 20th century. A devastating flood in the 1880s destroyed the levees at Greenville, a small city on the river in the heart of the delta. Those levees had been built according to the custom of the day, a wide distance from the river bank to give room for floodwaters to spread and relieve pressure. The replacement levees were built close to the river bank and capped with a coating of concrete.
The concrete platform on the side of the river made Greenville a booming river port and further enriched plantation owners whose black workers could cultivate more acres and ship cotton from the wharves in Greenville.
Through several more floods in the first two decades of the 1900s, the levees held. Luck was running out.
The fall and winter of 1926-27 were wet. Rain fell for weeks at the turn of the New Year. Gauges in Illinois, Ohio and Missouri showed higher volumes than had ever been registered. On the week ending in Good Friday in April, torrential rains pounded down river at Greenville. Worrisome news came from farther upriver. At Cairo, Illinois, flow was heavy and the river was still not expected to crest for two weeks. Water reaching the lower Mississippi became even higher. Plantations were stripped of workers to fill sandbags and work on the levees.
Every foot of levee from Cairo downstream was patrolled on foot to check the levee for failure. More than a million refugees were already in what the Red Cross called “concentration camps” on the flat tops of the levees to have food and shelter while they fought to contain the water.
President Calvin Coolidge named Herbert Hoover czar of the rescue operations, and he handled them with the same success and dispatch he had shown following mercy duties in Europe after World War I. His public acclaim in the 1927 flood disaster propelled him into the presidency in the next election.
The water rose and rose. The levee gave way in Greenville. White folks trying to escape the city by train were scarcely out of town when the force of the water picked up train tracks and dropped them like picket fences. On and on the water raced toward Vicksburg and New Orleans. Floodwaters killed thousands and inundated millions of acres. The river was taking back the delta.
It still hadn’t reached New Orleans. Ironically, the city that lay in a bowl below sea level felt relatively secure, although thirty miles north were the weakest levees in the state of Louisiana. The city also had a new Industrial Canal, so that flood waters could be pumped back into the river above its levees or into Lake Ponchartrain.
Still, the residents of the city were increasingly nervous. First, hundreds a day, and then thousands, climbed to the tops of the levees and saw how the water crept higher with each visit. Unlike Katrina, which gave scant warning of its arrival, the Great Flood of 1927 had dominated the front pages of newspapers for months. Merchants had begun to move inventory out of the city. Business slowed to a crawl. Fear was rampant.
New Orleans had been ruled for years by a select and insular group of bankers and old money society who really ran the city. An ineffective elected government meekly followed its lead. The ruling group felt sure that flooding was not a threat, but the loss of city business was the major concern.
They struck a devil’s bargain among themselves and it was rubber stamped by officialdom. To allay the fears of residents and protect commerce, they proposed dynamiting a spillway that would bypass the city and divert floodwaters to drown two parishes, St. Bernard’s and Plaquemines.
Their decision doomed the homes and livelihoods of 10,000 Louisianians – trappers in the marshes, fishermen on the coast, employees of a large sugar refinery, workers at meat packing plants and bootleggers whose defiance of Prohibition was made simple by a lacework of bayous and minor waterways known only to locals.
The bankers, movers and shakers pledged to reimburse the displaced residents of the two parishes for their sacrifice to save New Orleans. As it turned out, the bootleggers were the only group to collect when the bankers reneged.
The dynamiting was unnecessary, as it turned out. The river escaped through diversion to an old channel, the Atchafalaya River.
Chicanery and calumny are to this day facets of New Orleans and its love/hate marriage with the Mississippi River.
This time, catastrophe came, not from a swollen river, but a sneak attack from the Gulf of Mexico with a hurricane that nearly dealt a death knell to the unique city. It’s more Caribbean than typically American, more foreign than native, more enchanting than many livelier, cleaner, safer places in the country.
It dodged a bullet in 1927. It wasn’t so lucky in 2005. Its history, and that of the muddy artery that flows through it, are beautifully limned in this marvelous book. John Barry has given us a treasure in Rising Tide.