The Mississippi Flood of 1927

Cover of John M. Barry's book 'Rising Tide'

John M. Barry's book describes a natural disaster that has faded a bit in the national memory. Simon & Schuster hide caption

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In 1927 the Mississippi's floodwaters reached from Illinois and Missouri all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico. Nearly one million people were left homeless. John Barry, author of Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 describes the epic disaster.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

Perhaps the only other natural disaster in the United States that comes close to the level of devastation of Hurricane Katrina was the 1927 flood of the Mississippi River. That flood dumped as much as 30 feet of water on land from Illinois and Missouri down to the Gulf of Mexico. The Mississippi was at flood stage for months. Nearly a million people were homeless. The 1927 flood also helped propel Herbert Hoover to the presidency a year later. He was in charge of disaster relief for the Coolidge administration. John Barry is the author of "Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood and How It Changed America." He's also a resident of New Orleans and Washington, DC. He joins us now from his office in Washington.

Mr. Barry, thank you for talking to us.

Mr. JOHN BARRY (Author, "Rising Tide"): You're welcome.

WERTHEIMER: Mr. Barry, clearly, we're looking at incredible devastation in photographs of New Orleans and the Mississippi and Alabama coastlines: shattered homes, piles of debris that are completely unrecognizable as whatever they once were. There is a passage in your book where you described what it looked like when the river--the Mississippi River--finally subsided back into its banks, and I wonder if you could just read part of that for us.

Mr. BARRY: OK. (Reading) `In the entire flooded region, 50 percent of all animals--half of all the mules, horses, cattle, hogs and chickens--had drowned. Thousands of tenant farmer shacks had simply disappeared. Hundreds of sturdy barns, cotton gins, warehouses and farmhouses had been swept away. In some places, great mounds of sand covered fields and streets. On the fields, in the forests, in streets and yards and homes and businesses and barns, the water left a reeking muck. It filled the air with stench, and in the sun it laid baking and cracking like broken pottery, dung-colored and unvarying to the horizon.'

WERTHEIMER: When you think about the scope and scale of the 1927 flood, I wonder why it is that it hasn't passed into the sort of legend that most schoolchildren remember, like--as they do the Chicago fire or the San Francisco earthquake. Why don't more people know about this?

Mr. BARRY: Well, it's a good question. I have, you know, only speculative answers. I think one is that it was so big and covered so wide an area, it was a little bit like a dog trying to bite a basketball. People couldn't get their arms or heads around it. Nobody seemed to step back, at least then, and really looked at the whole thing. That's one of the reasons. And another reason, frankly, may be a certain intellectual prejudice. You know, history was largely written back in the '20s, I think, by people who looked askance at the South because of the blatant racism, and they really didn't care that much about what happened in the area that was most severely hit, which was Louisiana, Arkansas and Mississippi. And they didn't write about it.

WERTHEIMER: Now the city fathers of New Orleans made a decision to take down a section of the levee 13 miles south of the city. Their intention, apparently, was to lower the level of the river and to save the city of New Orleans. Could you tell us about that?

Mr. BARRY: Yeah, that's correct, and the idea is very comparable to simply pulling the plug out of the bathtub. If you do that, the water will drain out--if you punch a hole in the levee. In 1927, New Orleans was the most vital economic city in the South by far, and it was run entirely by bankers who didn't not even bother to consult elected officials; they simply decided they were going to dynamite the levee to reassure their correspondent banks in New York, London and Boston that they would never allow the Mississippi River to threaten the city. It was a strictly political power play. They promised reparations to the people they flooded out, and they stiffed them. They reneged on all their promises, written promises; they controlled the state Supreme Court, so the lawsuits against them went nowhere.

WERTHEIMER: Now when the flood hit Greenville, Mississippi, you write in the book that people, blacks and whites together, took refuge on the highest ground they could find, which was the levee.

Mr. BARRY: That's correct. It was the only dry ground.

WERTHEIMER: And some of them were evacuated, but not everybody.

Mr. BARRY: That's correct. They started to evacuate the city and they evacuated the whites, but the planners got together and decided that if they evacuated the black sharecroppers, the labor force for much of the Mississippi delta would disappear and would never return, and so they decided to keep them on the top of the levee and formed a camp for them for--stretched about 11 miles; thousands of people, many animals, and these people became almost slave labor. One of the great ironies--the great irony of all that is that Greenville, Mississippi, before the flood was easily probably the best city in the South to be a black person. You know, the Greenville public schools actually--while other Mississippi counties seriously debated whether they wanted to teach African-Americans to read--in Greenville African-Americans were being taught Latin. And that was because of the elite, aristocratic planter class, who did feel a certain noblesse oblige toward their sharecroppers, but they didn't let that interfere with a fairly ruthless sense of dollars.

WERTHEIMER: Herbert Hoover was President Coolidge's secretary of Commerce in 1927, so he was the man in charge of rescue operations. Was he a good manager of this 1927 flood relief effort?

Mr. BARRY: He did a magnificent job in managing the logistics of feeding, delivering aid, shelter to 700,000 people, and half of whom were living in tents. You know, tens of thousands of whom were living on tops of levees, some of which were only eight feet across with the river on one side and the flood on the other. And in fact, he managed to deliver aid without airplanes faster than aid has gotten to New Orleans in the Gulf Coast today.

WERTHEIMER: Were there any prominent politicians who vanished without a trace because of the way they handled the flood? I mean, not necessarily down South but this was a huge flood across many states.

Mr. BARRY: Well, Coolidge chose not to run for re-election, but that was independent of a flood decision. I think perhaps the most important impact the flood had we haven't discussed. I said there were almost 700,000 people being fed by the Red Cross. The federal government did not pay a single penny for the clothing, food or shelter of any one of those 700,000 people. And the American people did not accept this. They felt that it was wrong, and looking at this, I think, created a real change in the way Americans as a people viewed the role of the government's responsibility toward individuals.

WERTHEIMER: John Barry is the author of "Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America." Mr. Barry, thank you very much.

Mr. BARRY: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. AARON NEVILLE: (Singing) What have happened down here is the wind have changed. Clouds rolled in from the north and it started to rain. It rained real hard and it rained for a real long time. Six feet of water in the streets of Evangeline. The river rose all day and the river rose all night. Some people got lost in the flood; some people got away all right. The river have busted through clear down to Plaquemines. Six feet of water in the streets of Evangeline. Louisiana, Louisiana.

WERTHEIMER: That's Aaron Neville singing Randy Newman's song, "Louisiana 1927."

Here's the latest on Hurricane Katrina. President Bush announced this morning that an additional 7,000 federal troops will be sent to Louisiana to help with relief efforts. The Pentagon says an additional 10,000 National Guard troops will be going there and to Mississippi. NPR will continue to cover this story throughout the day. For more on Katrina's aftermath, go to our Web site, npr.org.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Scott Simon will be back next week. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

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The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America

by John M. Barry

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