July 03, 2011

Summer Reading List: Rising Tide

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.

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 Tiderising 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.

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
This The Year The Atchafalaya River ‘Captures’ The Mississippi?”
It is a
great reminder that the struggles outlined in the book are not isolated.

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
as solid summer reading for security types.