Among the books on my shelf that have sat there for years, awaiting their turn at the head of my queue, was John M. Barry’s 1997 tome Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America. If I remember correctly, a former boss gave this to me more than 5 years back. I’ve long looked forward to reading it, but I just never quite picked it up – until a few months back when the Mississippi River began another cycle of flooding from Illinois down to the Gulf. It was a sign to finally take it off the shelf.
The author does not exaggerate in claiming that this great natural event helped shape the country. The 1927 flood contributed to Herbert Hoover eventually reaching the presidency, New Orleans declining as the country’s top shipping outlet, race relations inflaming, and even national GDP dropping. Rising Tide introduces the earliest engineers to work the Mississippi, their involvement in the Civil War and post-war politics, and their infighting over whether to build spillways and the scale of levee systems for the great river. The wrestling over Mississippi River governance between Washington and the states, and between the War Department and politicians on the Hill, make today’s D.C. intrigue seem tame and respectable by comparison. The author describes one river engineer during the mid-1800s as “a pawn in a war between military and civilian engineers that would continue for a century.” Barry walks the reader through the decision making of a small group of elites in key Mississippi-bordering cities like Greenville and New Orleans who had the power, money and political connections to basically do whatever they wanted. One of the most fateful of their choices was to (unnecessarily, as it turned out) dynamite a hole in the levee north of New Orleans to flood St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes in order to spare the downtown homes of wealthy residents.
Indeed, much of the book provides a solid history of the Army Corps of Engineers, its efforts to tame the Mississippi River and related political wars in Washington. In its pre-Civil War years and immediately after the war, the surveying and studying of options for attempting to tame the river came largely down to the egos of two men, who cultivated bankers, high-level politicians and other powerful types. The author writes of the report that eventually sculpted how the United States chose to govern the river: “…the study of this writhing river began as a scientific enterprise. The resulting policy became a corruption of science.” The results were disastrous, and rippled throughout the United States.
At the end of the book, Barry identifies one of the looming challenges as the Atchafalaya River eventually becoming the primary Mississippi outlet, as New Orleans-area water systems are further altered. This has been a hot topic with 2011’s floods as well, including a great piece on Forbes tellingly titled “Is This The Year The Atchafalaya River ‘Captures’ The Mississippi?” It is a great reminder that the struggles outlined in the book are not isolated.
While the book is ostensibly about the changing American landscape, it details the intertwined, brutal history of race relations in the Mississippi Delta. The author does not hold back from including the most disturbing details. In this way, Rising Tide achieves what many other books I’ve read on environmental conditions do not – intimately outlining how natural phenomena helped drive social stress, demographic change and economic conditions. These are the relationships we need for considering the security effects of environmental change. I’ve not read a better example of this anywhere, and for this reason recommend Rising Tide as solid summer reading for security types.