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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 river. Such was the case for the great Mississippi River flood of 1927. Although the rains which spawned the flood waters fell within months of the flood crest, many of the conditions which either caused or exacerbated the flooding had human roots three quarters of a century long. Even today, seventy-one years after the flood waters receded, the river basin continues to feel the consequences of that flood.
Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America by John M. Barry is the far-reaching tale of that disaster. As the subtitle indicates, the book not only is a history of the disaster itself, but also is a social history of the Mississippi River Delta region over nearly a century from 1830-1930 and beyond, for the tale of man versus Ol' Man River just keeps rollin' on.
If you pick up the book hoping to read a lot about the meteorological aspects of the flood, you will likely be disappointed. If you are looking for a book on the engineering control of the Great River, I suggest John McPhee's The Control of Nature. But if you are looking for a book which uses the backdrop of a major disaster to tell the social history of the Mississippi Delta Region during a critical period, then seek out this book.
To put the tale into proper prospective, the Mississippi Basin Flood of 1993 carried 435,000 cubic feet of water per second past Iowa and one million cubic feet per second past St. Louis after the contribution from the Missouri River. The Great Flood of 1927 sent three million cubic feet per second past Greenville, Mississippi. At many sites along the river from Cairo, Illinois to New Orleans, the River remained in flood for as many as 153 consecutive days.
The flooding spread as far west as Oklahoma and Kansas and east as Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and from Iowa to the Gulf of Mexico. And if you think current weather patterns are extreme, New Orleans was pounded by five major rainstorms in the first four months of 1927, with the Good Friday storm of April 17 dumping 15 inches on the city. In the previous decade, no single storm dumped more rain than any of those five in early 1927. But it was not a localized downpour. Ten to fifteen inches of rain fell across a region approximately bounded by Cairo, Illinois, Little Rock, Arkansas, Jackson, Mississippi and New Orleans.
Barry's tale, however, focuses as much on the men involved with the River as on the River itself.: Nineteenth-Century engineers James Eades and Andrew Humphreys; the Percy family of Greenville, Mississippi, particularly Senator LeRoy Percy; the Club, an influential group of powerful New Orleans businessmen and community leaders; and Herbert C. Hoover, soon to be elected the President of the United States. Indeed, the spotlight cast on Mr Hoover as President Coolidge's appointee to oversee the flood relief 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.
Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America by John M. Barry, Touchstone Books, Simon and Schuster, New York, ISBN 0684840022, 1998.Order Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America Today!
Keith C. Heidorn, PhD, ACM
THE WEATHER DOCTOR
March 17, 1999
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