My mother gave me Rising Tide by John Barry several years ago. She told me to read it immediately, because it was fantastic. Why won’t I listen to my mother? Rising Tide is one of the best non-fiction books that I’ve ever read – on any subject.
This book is not a “Katrina” book, having come out years before the hurricane. However, it is essential reading for a full understanding of that catastrophe in its proper context. Barry does a masterful job of describing not only the 1927 flood of the Mississippi River and most of its tributaries that put 27,000 square miles under water, but also its lasting effects on this country.
Barry sets the stage by providing the context in which the flood would occur. He gives a crash course in river hydrology and fluid dynamics that this science nerd found riveting. Barry lays out why the levee system in place at the time of the flood was the worst possible choice of the available options and how the levees came to be the responsibility of the Army Corps of Engineers. The book describes the power structures in place in the Mississippi Delta Region, as well as the economic might of New Orleans at the time (interestingly, the Delta was ruled by Walker Percy’s grandfather). Having grown up during the decline of New Orleans, it is difficult for me to even imagine the City as rich and nationally powerful as Barry describes.
After Katrina, there was a vocal group of poor people who swore that they heard an explosion before the levee broke. They were suggesting that the levee was blown up by the wealthy and the business interests to flood them and to stop the levee from breaking where it would damage the Quarter, Uptown, and Downtown New Orleans. It sounds like a crackpot conspiracy theory. Unfortunately they had the precedent of the 1927 flood to point to.
The City’s leaders in 1927, none of them elected, decided that the only way to ensure the economic survival of the City was to blast a hole in the levee and flood some other poor bastards. The idea was that it would alleviate the pressure building on the levee around New Orleans. They settled on an area of the river in St. Bernard Parish (which was flooded to the rooftops after Katrina). The resulting flood was devastating and people lost everything – no FEMA or buses to the Astrodome. As it turns out, a breach in the levee elsewhere on the river occurred on its own that made dynamiting the levee in St. Bernard unnecessary.
The flood changed everything. Hoover was swept into office as President as a great humanitarian, while Wilson was exposed as completely inept during the crisis. The handling of the flood pushed blacks out of the Party of Lincoln, and it marked the beginnings of the GOPs “southern strategy”. The flood changed how the nation thought of the government’s duty to its citizens during a time of crisis (I honestly believe that the media stories about Katrina victims using their FEMA-funded credit cards to buy champagne at strip clubs etc. is an orchestrated attempt to swing that pendulum back the other way – but I digress). It changed the economic picture in both New Orleans and the Mississippi Delta region for good, beginning the decline of once great economic centers. The flood also hastened the Great Migration of southern blacks to the north. It changed the nature of race relations in the Delta more or less permanently for the worse. It changed America fundamentally. It will be interesting to see in hindsight what changes Katrina will have on our national picture in the years to come.
If you haven’t read this book, I can not recommend it highly enough. My mom tried to tell me, and I’m trying to tell you. The rest is up to you. Sadly, I only have one copy of this one, and it is on loan. The great book giveaway of the last few days is at an end.
In other NOLA news, if you were considering a Katrina-related tattoo, the Times-Picayune ran a nice collection of “Kat tats” (link goes to PDF) a few days ago. I was seriously considering it for a while, but then reason took over. I’m partial to the fleur de lis with “toujours” scroll underneath in this group.