WASHINGTON — Before Katrina, the greatest peacetime calamity in the history of the country was the great Mississippi flood of 1927, and it left behind some lessons that could have been usefully applied to help manage the response to the current catastrophe.
For one thing, President Bush entrusted a vast and complicated relief effort to lawyers, Secretary for Homeland Security Michael Chertoff, and Emergency Management Director Michael Brown, who has since been forced to resign.
Neither of them nor any of their top aides had any experiences to speak of in administration of large-scale emergency projects, and the tumultuous early days, with Mr. Chertoff having to be told of the chaos in the Convention Center, showed it.
By contrast, President Coolidge, himself not much of an activist, entrusted the job of dealing with the 1927 Mississippi River flood to his secretary of Commerce, Herbert Hoover, who turned out to be just the man for the job.
Hoover, trained as a mining engineer, had worked in engineering in China. He organized the wartime feeding of Belgium, which had been overrun by the Germans. He organized shipments of food for starving millions in central Europe.
Hoover quickly assessed the needs. He went on the radio to raise $15 million for the Red Cross. He visited 91 communities, everything from doctors to dining halls, and told them to get ready for thousands of evacuees. "And you haven't got months to do it.... You've got hours," he said.
Hoover later recalled, "I suppose I could have called in the whole of the Army, but what was the use? All I had to do was call in Main Street itself."
Among other effects of the flood, it started a migration of hundreds of thousands of African-Americans from the flooded area to Chicago, Detroit, and Los Angeles.
Hoover's handling of the flood helped him win nomination and election as president in 1928. I doubt that the management of Katrina will win many nominations or burnish many reputations.
And a corrective note on last week's column: A spokesman for Joe Allbaugh, a former FEMA director, advises that I mistakenly referred to him as Joseph in last week's column.
Sorry. I'm one of those old-fashioned types who still says Vice President RICHARD Cheney and former President WILLIAM Clinton. I thought I was being polite, but sometimes a Joe is not a Joseph.
• Daniel Schorr is the senior news analyst at National Public Radio.