How 1927’s Mississippi River megaflood changed America

In 1926, the Army Corps of Engineers said they were in a position to protect the entire Mississippi valley. It was classic hubris.

In 'Rising Tide,' John Barry argues that the racial implications and political impact of the flood of 1927 on America were enormous.

Best-selling author John M. Barry lives in the French Quarter of New Orleans, which is largely protected from flood damage. Even Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath left his neighborhood mostly unscathed.

But few people know more about floods in the middle part of the country than Barry. He's served as a local levee official in the New Orleans area, and he's been a major player in lawsuits filed against oil and gas companies alleging damage to Louisiana's flood systems. Barry is also the author of 1998's Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America.

In the book, Barry chronicles the most devastating river flood in the nation's history. The epic disaster killed about 250 people, left 1 million homeless, and inundated 23,000 square miles of land, nearly the size of West Virginia.

In an interview with the Monitor, Barry spoke about how the flood changed America and how we can improve the way we handle the risk of natural disaster in our communities.

Q: What should we know about the flood of 1927?

It was an enormous event, largely forgotten today, that killed people from Virginia to Oklahoma. There were 1 million homeless people, and 700,000 living in refugee camps.

The flood began the shift of African Americans from the South to the North and from the Republican to the Democratic Party. The racial implications and the political impact on the country are enormous.

Q: How did leaders respond?

You can demonstrate with almost mathematical precision that the flood elected Herbert Hoover president. He did a very good job handling the flood, and it made him the odds-on favorite for the Republican nomination in 1928.

Also, New Orleans used its political power to get the governor and the US Army Corps of Engineers to approve the dynamiting of a levee in order to protect the city but flood other people. In fact, New Orleans would have been safe without flooding out their neighbors.

Q: What about the federal government?

It did not spend one penny to help people, even though you could argue that the federal government's rather idiotic flood control policy was responsible for much of the devastation.

The flood really shifted the way people thought about government. Before then, there was a general consensus that the government had no role to help individual citizens.

Q: The Mississippi had flooded many times before. What made this flood unique?

It was the enormity of it. In 1927, the Mississippi River reclaimed a lot of its natural flood plain.

And people thought they had a protection system in place. In 1926, the Army Corps of Engineers said they were now in a position to protect the entire Mississippi valley. It was classic hubris.

Q: What do you think of the idea that people shouldn't live in places that face major risks from natural disasters like floods?

Will you talk to half of Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana and tell them to move out?

New Orleans has been called "the inevitable city on the impossible site." It makes no sense geologically to put a city there, but it makes enormous sense economically. And there are always tradeoffs between economic activity and risk.

Still, there's no question that developers move into places that they shouldn't in this country. The problem comes in not recognizing the risk and not preparing for the risk.

Levees are generally built to 100-year flood standards, which sounds like a high level of protection. But it is the lowest in the developed world.

Q: What needs to be fixed in our approach to risk from flooding?

People move into risk-prone areas and just become too comfortable. That kind of complacency builds and builds and builds, and inevitably you're going to have a problem. Nature is a pretty difficult competitor. If you make a mistake, nature will find it and exploit it sooner or later. It's only a matter of time.

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