Oct 10, 2005
Hurricane Katrina may have exposed some of the raw truth about this class society. But it's not a new story. In 1927, an off-the-charts flood engulfed the entire Mississippi River watershed system – running from Pittsburgh in the east and Nebraska in the west, down into New Orleans. Twenty-seven thousand square miles were flooded. Nearly a million people became refugees. The dead could not be reliably counted.
John M. Barry, in his book Rising Tide, tells the story of this flood in a way that reveals some of the class lines in 1927: Rising Tide shows the absolute control wielded by plantation owners in the Mississippi Delta and bankers in New Orleans, control which allowed them to protect their financial interests at the expense of the lives and livelihoods of the general population.
In the 1920s, agriculture in the South was dominated by plantation owners like LeRoy Percy of Greenville, Mississippi. His wealth depended on the labor of hundreds of black sharecroppers and tenant farmers. It was their labor that raised and reinforced the levees that protected Percy's holdings. And it was their labor that Percy sought to hang onto by imprisoning them on the levees as flood waters destroyed the surrounding countryside.
Levees for miles along the Mississippi and its tributaries were turned into one big armed concentration camp. Food and water were delivered to this imprisoned population by the same tugs and barges that the Guards' guns kept them from escaping on.
It might as well have been slavery and it helped reinforce the Great Migration from the plantations after the flood waters went down. Sharecropper families, having lost everything, began slipping away, going north. The withdrawal of their labor put an end to the Delta plantation era.
Below Greenville, in New Orleans, there were also "men of consequence," the city's bankers who sought to maintain their credit ratings and the investments of Eastern financiers by dynamiting a section of levee and allowing the Mississippi's floodwaters to drain out onto two poor counties just south of New Orleans.
In fact, the failure of the levees further upstream was already reducing the threat against New Orleans. But the bankers, worried about New Orleans' economic reputation, destroyed the levees anyway.
The bankers, "honorable men" all, signed an indemnity agreement with the small towns to be flooded and their people, pledging to cover all losses. But their promises turned out to be worthless, just as their honor turned out to be non-existent. The residents of the flooded counties – many of them the poorest whites – were ruined, many driven from the area permanently.
Then there was that other "honorable man," Herbert Hoover, who used the plight of the refugees all up and down the Mississippi to gain prominence for himself, and then the presidency.
Barry's book shows all this and much more – how the Army Corps of Engineers made disastrous decisions, adding not only to the flood of 1927, but to subsequent ones; how the racism of the time permeated the actions of the ruling class. And finally, how social class decides who lives and who dies during a disaster. Not much has changed since 1927.