RISING TIDE by John M. Barry


The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America
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 A devastating flood is both the protagonist and the backdrop of this brilliantly narrated epic story of the misuse of engineering in thrall to politics. Over thousands of years of periodic floods, the Mississippi River deposited millions of acres of rich alluvial soil. Then, in the aftermath of the Civil War, farmers (and politicians) began demanding that the river be contained, so they could reap the soil's wealth. Former Dun's Review staffer Barry (The Ambition and the Power, 1989) describes how the supremely confident engineers of 19th-century America jumped cockily to the challenge, their attitude typified by James Buchanan Eads, who said in 1874 that he believed man was now ``capable of curbing, controlling and directing the Mississippi, according to his pleasure.'' By the 1920s engineers could brag that they had accomplished what Eads had promised. Stretches of the river were lined with massive levees 30 feet high and 188 feet wide at their base. But then, in 1927, came a flood of almost biblical proportions, and people paid for the engineers' hubris. The flood caused hundreds of deaths, hundreds of thousands of refugees, hundreds of millions in damages--and, Barry argues, the destruction of a way of life, as black sharecroppers fled north for good. Barry's narrative features outsized characters: engineers like Eads; plantation owners like LeRoy Percy, who created an almost feudal Mississippi sharecropping empire; and assorted members of New Orleans's elite, so powerful that they saved their city's bond rating by diverting the flood to their less politically connected neighbors. A fascinating, cautionary tale of humans versus nature that suffers only in its abrupt ending: Barry doesn't establish whether the flood offered more than a temporary setback to overconfident engineers and short-sighted business leaders. He barely mentions the devastating flood of 1993 or the renewed debates it engendered about controlling the Mississippi. Perhaps he's saving that story for a sequel. (photos, not seen) (Book-of-the-Month Club/History Book Club alternate selection)

Pub Date: April 1st, 1997
ISBN: 0-684-81046-8
Page count: 512pp
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1st, 1997


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