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Great Flood of '27 Left Its Mark

'And the River Kept Rising'

It started in August 1926, when heavy rainstorms began sweeping across the central United States. By September, the Mississippi River had flooded parts of the Midwest.

And the River kept rising.

John M. Barry will bring this tale to the AAPG annual meeting in New Orleans, first in a 4 p.m. lecture on Tuesday, April 18, and then as commentary during a Mississippi River cruise that evening on board the John J. Audobon.

Barry's book Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America, won the Francis Parkman Prize, awarded by the Society of American Historians for the outstanding book of American history for 1997.

It also received the Southern Book Award, the Lillian Smith Award, the McLemore Prize and eight other prizes, including the first book award ever given by the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities.

"An accomplished and important history, magisterial in its scope," The New York Times Book Review said. The Washington Post called it "a big ambitious book that ... has the potential to change the way we think."

In October 1926, the river gauge at Vicksburg, Miss., exceeded 40 feet. It was, normally, a low-water month. The Vicksburg gauge had never topped 31 feet in October.

As winter approached, heavy snowfall hit the upper Midwest and rainstorms drenched the Mississippi valley. Nashville flooded. Chattanooga flooded. At least 16 died in Tennessee and thousands were flooded out of their homes over Christmas.

And the River kept rising.

Barry now divides his time between Washington, D.C., and New Orleans, where he serves as a Distinguished Visiting Scholar at Tulane University -- the same school he worked for in 1973.

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It started in August 1926, when heavy rainstorms began sweeping across the central United States. By September, the Mississippi River had flooded parts of the Midwest.

And the River kept rising.

John M. Barry will bring this tale to the AAPG annual meeting in New Orleans, first in a 4 p.m. lecture on Tuesday, April 18, and then as commentary during a Mississippi River cruise that evening on board the John J. Audobon.

Barry's book Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America, won the Francis Parkman Prize, awarded by the Society of American Historians for the outstanding book of American history for 1997.

It also received the Southern Book Award, the Lillian Smith Award, the McLemore Prize and eight other prizes, including the first book award ever given by the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities.

"An accomplished and important history, magisterial in its scope," The New York Times Book Review said. The Washington Post called it "a big ambitious book that ... has the potential to change the way we think."

In October 1926, the river gauge at Vicksburg, Miss., exceeded 40 feet. It was, normally, a low-water month. The Vicksburg gauge had never topped 31 feet in October.

As winter approached, heavy snowfall hit the upper Midwest and rainstorms drenched the Mississippi valley. Nashville flooded. Chattanooga flooded. At least 16 died in Tennessee and thousands were flooded out of their homes over Christmas.

And the River kept rising.

Barry now divides his time between Washington, D.C., and New Orleans, where he serves as a Distinguished Visiting Scholar at Tulane University -- the same school he worked for in 1973.

"I was an assistant football coach at Tulane when they had a great team, which for them was unusual," he said. "In fact, they have a great football team every 25 years."

He was on the staff of the Tulane football team that beat Louisiana State University for the first time in 25 years, and attained the school's highest national ranking until 1998.

Barry, who grew up in Rhode Island, first visited New Orleans during his college days. "I thought I'd like the city more without Mardi Gras," he said, "so I came back -- and I was right."

On New Year's Day, 1927, the Mississippi reached flood stage in Illinois. Early Mardi Gras festivities in New Orleans came to a halt later in January, during the city's heaviest rains in 52 years.

Pittsburgh flooded on January 23. Flood waters threatened to crumble levees in Arkansas. Again, torrents of rain fell on New Orleans, more than five and a half inches in 24 hours.

Downtown Cincinnati flooded on January 28. And the River kept rising.

Barry covered national politics and economics as Washington editor for "Dun's Review." His first book, The Ambition and the Power: A True Story of Washington, was published in 1989.

His second book, The Transformed Cell, written with Dr. Steven Rosenberg of the National Cancer Institute, explored cancer research, immunotherapy and gene research. USA Today judged it "the most important book published" in 1991.

He'd been living in New Orleans in 1977 and writing for a local weekly that published a special issue on the 50th anniversary of the Great Mississippi Flood. Barry said that planted the seed for his third book, Rising Tide.

"All I knew initially was that it was a very big flood and that the levee had been dynamited. I knew enough about politics to know that you don't just go around dynamiting a levee and flooding 10,000 people out of their homes," he said.

On March 16, 1927, the Mississippi National Guard was mobilized to guard the levees. Between March 17 and March 20, tornadoes killed 45 people in the lower Mississippi Valley.

More rain came.

And the River kept rising. In St. Louis, the Mississippi rose six feet in 24 hours. Two more died in violent storms in Oklahoma City on March 31. Almost 30,000 men were mobilized to work along the levees.

In 1992, Barry was searching for a subject for his third book and remembered the Mississippi flood stories.

"There's no rational explanation of why I wrote the book.

It just rose up in my consciousness," he said. "In the book I paraphrase T.S. Eliot. He wrote, "The sea is all about us. The river is within us.'"

Although the flood made headlines across the nation, it did not remain long in the public consciousness, outside of the affected areas. In the East and West, it barely qualified as history.

"I kind of think it's some of that anti-Southern bias," he said. "That exists a lot less today, but at the time of the flood it was widespread.

"During the flood and immediately afterward, newspaper editors named it almost unanimously the top story of 1927. But in the middle of the flood, Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic.

"Everybody remembers Lindbergh. Who remembers the flood?"

All of the upper Mississippi was in flood by April 9, 1927.

Washed-out tracks paralyzed railroad service. In Oklahoma and Arkansas, 16 more drowned. On April 13, violent rainstorms and tornadoes hit a dozen states. More than 50,000 flood refugees lived in tents or boxcars. And the River kept rising.

Floods move down river in crests. The most dangerous floods have more than one crest. In 1927, the U.S. Weather Service counted 10 crests moving down the Mississippi.

The 1927 flood "is so central to so much that has happened in the United States, and what is happening -- all the engineering issues, so many of the political issues," Barry said.

On April 15, 1927, in 18 hours, 15 inches of rain fell on New Orleans.

But up and down the Mississippi, the federal government levees were holding. To that very day, the Mississippi River Commission could state there had never been "a single acre of land flooded by a break on a levee constructed to government specifications."

On the next day, April 16, at Dorena, Mo., 1,200 feet of government levee collapsed and flood waters swept across 175,000 acres. It was the first federal levee to go. These historical incidents are taken from Rising Tide.

"Earlier, the Times-Picayune (newspaper in New Orleans) had reported the arrival of 640,000 sandbags in the city, supposedly enough to guarantee perfect protection," Barry wrote. "In an effort to reassure, it now reported the arrival of six million sandbags. The news did not reassure."

Estimates of total drownings in the Mississippi Delta exceeded 200 people, with property damage at $500 million.

Millions of normally dry acres of the central United States now were under water. Most of the land between Yazoo City, Miss., and Little Rock, Ark., was submerged. The swollen waters of the Mississippi rolled south toward New Orleans.

And the River kept rising.

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