I just finished reading Rising Tide by John M. Barry. It tells the story of the Mississippi Flood of 1927. Despite having traveled a fair amount over this country of ours, I never thought much about the enormity of the Mississippi River before reading this book. The Mississippi River Basin stretches from Montana to New York, and all that water eventually flows passed New Orleans.
In 1927 an unusual amount of rain fell across the country raising the level of the river, which burst through its levees, spreading water over thousands of miles. Unlike the flood of 2005, the flood of 1927 spared the city of New Orleans. The bankers and lawyers who ran the city convinced the Governor to dynamite the levees elsewhere so that the economic engine of the region would be safe. They promised that New Orleans would pay reparations to the people whose homes were sacrificed.
On April 29, 1927, a levee thirteen miles south of New Orleans was blasted with dynamite. The people of Plaquemies and St. Bernard Parishes lost everything. Then, in a truly despicable bit of lawyering, the upstanding citizens of the Crescent City weaseled out of their end of the bargain. The people who were the victims of the intentional flood got next to nothing.
Reading Rising Tide left me feeling discouraged. It is full of examples of human failure and the failure of government. It doesn’t offer much hope for democracy, since it takes place during a time when the Ku Klux Klan won elections across the country (from Portland, OR to Portland, ME, lest we Yankees get too self-righteous). It doesn’t offer any good alternatives, either, since the aristocrats of New Orleans completely betrayed the poor folks down the river.
Then a few days after I finished reading, something amazing happened. In the greatest landslide of my adult life, Barack Obama was elected President of the United States. The American people were guided by the better angels of their natures and Democracy worked.
April 29, 1927 is not coming back. August 29, 2005 is not coming back. At least not for the next four years.