The Mississippi River flood of 1927 is at the center of Rising Tide, but John Barry freely interweaves much more. I found these subplots as interesting, if not more so than, the flood itself:
- How Mississippi—economically, politically, and culturally—has long been comprised of two very different parts: the Delta and the rest of the state. (And, I would add, a third part, the Gulf Coast, which has long been under the New Orleans’ sphere of influence.) This was much more interesting that the bland story told in my eighth grade Mississippi History class.
- How New Orleans in the early 20th century was the most powerful city in the South, and how the insular, wealthy, usually non-elected, elite of the city controlled, not only the city, but economic and political power in Louisiana and beyond.
- How those New Orleans elites ruthlessly, callously, and needlessly sacrificed the people of St. Bernard and Plaquemines Parishes by dynamiting the levee south of the city in order to decrease the height of the river at New Orleans. And, then how those same power brokers reneged on their lofty promises and refused to compensate the flood refugees for destroying their lives.
- How St. Bernard Parish truly has a fascinating history, including the bootlegging, fur trapping, and “wild west” atmosphere of the 1920s. I live only 30 miles from St. Bernard Parish, and many of its residents have moved to our nearby higher elevation county in south Mississippi. So, I know many people from “The Parish.” What I didn’t know is that of one of the most important ethnic groups in St. Bernard Parish are the Islenos, descendants of Spaniards from the Canary Islands who arrived in the 18th century. The Islenos’ culture was still very much alive in 1927.
- How two brilliant, ambitious civil engineers—James Eads and Andrew Humphreys—engaged in a bitter feud over how the Mississippi River should be controlled.
- How never before the post-1927 flood control project had the Congress appropriated such a large expenditure to fix a problem that was in essence a regional, state, and local problem without requiring at a minimum “matching” funds from local governments. The flood control bill, reluctantly signed by Republican Calvin Coolidge, set a precedent that Franklin Roosevelt would push to even higher and broader levels in the New Deal just a few years later in the 1930s.
Barry’s historical narrative reads more like a page turner than a textbook. I don’t rate many books 5-stars. For me, this one easily made the cut.