Thursday, September 15, 2005

Good Flood, Bad Flood

One of the things I noticed in Hurricane Katrina's aftermath coverage was the constant refrain that the damage from Mobile to New Orleans and up north to Hattiesburg was the "worst in American history." I was immediately reminded, as others were, of the terrible Great Flood of 1927, which was arguably the worst in American history. John Barry's authoritative book, Rising Tide documents it quite well.

There's an excellent post, Roblog: The Good Flood at Rob MacDougall's blog, that takes a look at it.
Was 1927 the Good Flood? I don’t have Barry’s book in front of me any more (another library user recalled it the day after Katrina, and they weren't the only one looking for the book—Rising Tide jumped this week to #11 on Amazon's best seller list, and the NYT reports it's just gone back into print), but the picture of 1927 that he drew there was considerably less heartwarming. The majority of people displaced by the flood were black sharecroppers. The whites who owned flooded lands desperately feared that black labor would simply abandon the region after the waters receded. White planters had refused outside assistance after earlier floods for fear it would undermine their control of the region. In 1927, the planters succeeded in taking over relief efforts to see that they did not. National guardsmen were used to keep sharecroppers imprisoned in the refugee camps until they could return to working the land, and local officials charged homeless blacks—on credit, ever deepening their debts—for food and medical supplies the Red Cross had intended to be free.

Barry describes how 1927 became a turning point in attitudes towards federal activism and relief—not because the U.S. government stepped in to help the victims of the flood, but because it didn’t, and the American public was outraged. Things changed after 1927. The Flood Control Act of 1928 was the most expensive single bill Congress had ever passed, and Barry sees it as a crucial first step towards the ambitious relief activities of the New Deal. But in the wake of the flood and right through the New Deal years, the prime beneficiaries of the new federal paternalism remained the region’s white planters....

...[t]he man most associated with relief efforts at the time was Coolidge’s secretary of commerce, Herbert Hoover. (Maybe he’s the little fat man?) Hoover had of course made his name engineering famine relief in Europe after the First World War. And with no real precedents for federal disaster relief, the flood fell under the Commerce Department’s purview by virtue of its authority over interstate commerce on the Mississippi. Hoover’s efforts after the flood earned him immense positive publicity and helped put him in the White House in 1928. But his apparent abandonment of the Louisiana refugees in the months to come, it’s been argued, played a big part in splitting black voters from the party of Lincoln for good.
So it is that Katrina will have powerful, longterm effects we can't see yet. Just as the 1927 flood raised Hoover to the White House -- where, you would think, his skills would have made him perfect to handle the Great Depression but instead he was hounded from public life in disgrace for his perceived incompetence -- so Katrina will set us up for consequences unknown.

Something to think about.

No comments: