Floods and Politics

Our flooding problem and the nation’s economic problems make a good case for reading Amity Shlaes’ Pulitzer Prize winning book “The Forgotten Man.”

Her book, a new history of the Great Depression, begins in Memphis.

“Floods change the course of history,” she writes, “and the Flood of 1927 was no exception. When the waters of the Mississippi broke through banks and levees that spring, the disaster was enormous. A wall of water pushed down the river, covering the area where nearly a million lived. Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover raced to Memphis and took command. Hoover talked railroads into transporting the displaced for free and carrying freight at a discount. He commandeered private outboard motors and built motorboats of plywood…He helped the Red Cross launch a fund drive; within a month the charity had already collected promises of more than $8 million, an enormous figure for the time.”

Amusingly, not far from Memphis, bootleggers set up shop on high in treetops. New babies got flood names such as  Highwater Jones and Overflow Johnson.  The river below Memphis reached a width of 60 miles.

Hoover did such a good job of marshalling resources  that “things felt calmer on Hoover’s watch.”  Shlaes notes that “what the public liked about Hoover was their sense of him as guardian, that he would protect them and what they had. If Hoover could win the presidential election the following year, then he might hold back whatever waters of adversity threatened.”

He did such a good job that current President Calvin Coolidge decided against another term. The flood had flooded Hoover with goodwill translating into votes. He was elected president. The flood also buoyed Huey Long who became governor of Louisiana.

So far, national politics has ignored our flooding problems. Perhaps they do so at their peril.

The flooding, of course, did not cause the Depression, but it didn’t help. With the precarious financial situation the United States finds itself in, much worse than during the flood of 1927, it’s important to pay attention to what our politicians do.


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