Deadly deluges of human folly
Recent flooding in the Midwest brought frightening images into blessedly dry living rooms. It also brought a sense of déjà vu: Haven’t we seen a lot of these weather disasters lately?
The record says that we have. The leading theory, gathering strength, is that climate change is the reason. Thanks to a warmer, wetter atmosphere, North America can expect more extreme rain and snow events, along with significant flooding.
Literary representations of great floods go back to the stories of Noah and Gilgamesh, emphasizing their mythic hold on the human psyche and our fear of violating some divine order. However, four recent nonfiction books place the blame more directly on human folly.
In his masterful “Rising Tide: the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How it Changed America,” John M. Barry blends scientific and cultural history to illuminate one of the nation’s worst natural disasters. In a contest to control the Mississippi, two men, James Eads and Andrew Humphreys, squared off repeatedly. Eads, a self-made entrepreneur, sold apples on the streets of St. Louis before developing a successful river salvage operation. The more privileged Humphreys was a West Point graduate known for his ruthlessness as a Union general. Both men had designs on the river, and theories on how best to manage it.
After completing a groundbreaking survey in 1850, Humphreys became head of the Army Corps of Engineers, which officially commanded US waterways. Eads represented the rapidly developing expertise in the private sector. The fight for ascendancy between military and civilian engineers would affect policy well into the 20th century.
Barry’s account of evolving flood-control principles will fascinate anyone trying to understand why rising waters still drive so many Americans from their homes. The 1927 flood was made worse by a disastrous “levees-only” policy. It incorrectly held that rapidly flowing waters would dredge their way to the sea, hence any method designed to relieve some of the pressure (outlets, reservoirs etc.) was unnecessary, if not counterproductive. Though neither Ead nor Humphreys endorsed the levees-only idea, it was embraced by bureaucrats who had the power to set policy.
Barry vividly recreates the horrifying result — hundreds died and hundreds of thousands were displaced — but not before exploring the delta region’s history, and the cultural forces that upped the ante. (Admirers of the writer Walker Percy will find absorbing material about his family’s influence in the years preceding the flood.)
Cultural forces were also decisive when Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, in 2005. As in 1927, the Mississippi River defeated the levees meant to contain it. More than 1,000 people died and a million were displaced in the chaotic aftermath. “Katrina: After the Flood,” by Gary Rivlin, assesses the recovery. Ten years on, he found a city that had rebounded but in ways favoring the well off. Just as the flood disproportionately damaged black neighborhoods, the rebuilding effort markedly failed black survivors. Rivlin offers a memorable sampling of who behaved well and who didn’t. Then-mayor Ray Nagin, who wound up in federal prison, will be remembered for both corruption and incompetence.
Roughly a century before Katrina, a government employee named Isaac Cline was reassigned to New Orleans by the US Weather Service. Cline came from Galveston, Texas — a Gulf coast city that, according to his confident prediction, a hurricane could never strike. One did of course, taking an estimated 8,000 lives in September of 1900. As Erik Larson recounts in “Isaac’s Storm,” severe flooding joined with high winds to create what remains the nation’s deadliest natural disaster.
In Larson’s chronicle, Cline becomes a tragic figure whose hubris imparted a mistaken sense of well-being to the people of Galveston. (Children gamboled in the city’s rapidly flooding streets, in blissful ignorance of what was to come.) Exiled to New Orleans, Cline became a latter-day Cassandra, advancing our understanding of the role tides play in destructive hurricanes.
By the time of the Galveston flood, many Americans were only too willing to blame arrogant men rather than God for disastrous events. A decade earlier, on May 31, 1889, a dam had burst in the mountains above Johnstown, Pa., inundating the town and killing more than 2,000 people. The destruction was traced to improper repairs, and the repairs to the super rich.
As David McCullough recounts in “The Johnstown Flood,” the dam had originally been built to support a canal. In service to an exclusive summer club, it was hastily reconstructed to create a lake. People toiling in the steel mills below heard tales of affluent young people sailing boats high above them. Flood survivors were repelled by the thought that so many lives could be sacrificed to pleasure; in McCullough’s Gilded Age morality tale, the revulsion spread, helping to fuel historic labor unrest and usher in an era of reform.
Not long after the Johnstown flood, The New York Times pronounced it “an engineering crime.” These ably constructed histories suggest we have not see the end of such disasters — partly owing to nature, partly to us.
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M.J. Andersen is an author and journalist who writes frequently on the arts.