During a three-week road trip through the southern United States, a fellow guest at a B&B in Vicksburg, MI suggested I read this book — to understand more about the Mississippi River, the levee system, and why flooding continues to be an issue in this area. It was a good suggestion. Awarded three stars on Goodreads.
I opted for the audiobook, to help pass the long hours in the car. The book is interesting, though it did not provide a completely satisfying explanation.
The focus of the book is on the Great Flood of 1927, which I had never heard about. That, in itself, is surprising. But the story actually begins back in the 1800s with a battle of egos between Army Surveyor Andrew Humphreys (enter the Army Corps of Engineers) and James Eads, the first engineer to use steel to build a bridge across the Mississippi. Each has his own distinct approach to “controlling” the river.
Later, the story shifts to the Percy family — a father and son — who play significant roles. The Ku Klux Klan makes an appearance. So does an ambitious Herbert Hoover who uses flood relief as a way to feed his political aspirations for the Presidency.
One of the most interesting aspects of the story for me was all the ways racism continued to shape society, long after the Civil War ended — as in, for example, the forced conscription (at gunpoint) of black men to do the back-breaking flood preparation work, while white families were evacuated.
The book is a bit overwritten for my taste. And while each story thread is interesting, taken as a whole, they don’t hang together very well.
My big takeaways are:
• The Mississippi River plays a more essential role for many more millions of Americans (representing fully a third of the country’s land mass) than I realized and to our nation’s economy as a whole.
• The River is too powerful and variable to be controlled by ANY humanly conceived system (at least so far).
• The Army Corps of Engineers has been messing unsuccessfully with nature for longer than I knew.
• New Orleans was not built in a particularly smart location.
More about the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. It was the most destructive river flood in the history of the US, with 27,000 square miles inundated up to a depth of 30 feet! That’s why I’m surprised I never learned about it in school.
You may want to know more about the author.