'Rising Tide' Chronicles Flow of Changes

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'Rising Tide' Chronicles Flow of Changes

John M. Barry's Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America, takes us back 70 years to a society that most of us would hardly recognize.

In 1927, the Mississippi River flooded 27,000 square miles from Illinois

and Missouri south to the Gulf of Mexico. No one expected the government to help the victims. President Calvin Coolidge even refused to visit the area. As a result, the flood created and destroyed leaders:

Herbert Hoover, Coolidge's secretary of Commerce, was considered politically dead until he took over rescue/relief efforts. His competence and public relations skills sent him to the White House in 1928. (But his duplicity in dealings with black leaders helped begin turning black voters from the Republican Party of Lincoln to the Democrats.)

The Percy family, planters who had built an ``empire'' around Greenville, Miss., moved onto the national, even the international, stage. In 1922, LeRoy Percy's sense of obligation to blacks led him to fight the Ku Klux Klan, then a national power.

Yet in 1927, Percy more than acquiesced when the Mississippi National Guard held black refugees in camps, forcing them to work on levees in conditions close to slavery.

In New Orleans, officials dynamited a levee south of the city. Water washing across St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes relieved pressure on New Orleans levees, maybe preventing flooding. But those parishes were ruined.

Bankers and city leaders reneged on promises of full compensation to victims. Such backtracking was among the many resentments people in Louisiana had against the upper classes when they elected Huey Long governor in 1928.

The major physical legacy of the Great Mississippi Flood - an elaborate system of lower Mississippi River flood control measures that have confined larger floods - was recently in the news. Fast-forward to March 17, 1997, when the Army Corps of Engineers began diverting water around New Orleans for only the eighth time since 1927.

The flood also has helped create today's response to disasters: quick federal aid, often with the president on hand to take credit.

By Jack Williams, USA TODAY Weather Editor

A major flood on any river is both a long-term and a short-term event, particularly any river basin where human influence has exerted "control" over the ri...

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...vaulted Hoover from unlikely presidential candidate to dark-horse candidate to the White House in a mere 18 months. At the time, Hoover's coordination of relief efforts re-earned him the title of "The Great Humanitarian" -- a far different image of the man than we have today as we link his name and presidency with the Great Depression.

Rising Tide is a well-written book with many insights into American social history on just about every page. Although I was disappointed that there was not more said about the flood's impact outside the area around Louisiana and Mississippi, the story

of how politics and the quest for personal power interact with a major natural disaster on one of the worlds's major rivers was quite rivetting. Once started, I found the book hard to put down.

If you are looking for a book which successfully combines the human need to control nature with an in-depth history of part of the affected area during a time of disaster, I strongly recommend this book. If your interest is purely in the meteorology and

hydrology of a great flood on a great river, you many only be interested in parts of the book, and I would suggest looking elsewhere for more detail.
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