Mighty River at Full Flood Fascinating History of '27 Disaster

Article excerpt

RISING TIDE

By John M. Barry

524 pages, Simon & Schuster, $27.50 WHEN THE WATERS RECEDE By Dan Guillory 101 pages, Stormline Press, $15 (paper) ***** SOUTH OF Cairo, Ill., the Great Flood of '93 simply petered out. So vast is the Mississippi River past its juncture with the Ohio that the channel can easily swallow a mere million cubic feet a second. Imagine, then, what kind of flood it takes to devastate the Lower Mississippi. That's the kind of flood that hit Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana 70 years ago, in April 1927. In the end, the flood covered an area the size of New England (minus Maine). The official human loss was 246; unofficially, the total may have topped 1,000. It brushed the lives of close to a million Americans. And, says author John Barry in "Rising Tide," its effects are still being felt today. His book, as wide in scope as the river at full flood, lists those effects. Among other things, he says, the flood: * Expanded Americans' opinions of what the federal government owed its people. * Hastened the outpouring of blacks from the sharecropper farms in the South to the cities of the North. * Helped to elect Herbert Hoover as president - and began turning blacks away from their long allegiance to the Republican Party. Obviously, the book reaches far beyond a journalistic recounting of the Flood of '27. In time alone, it extends from the era just after the Civil War to our own day. In subject matter, it probes deeply into such varied topics as hydrology, sociology, economics, geography, immigration, politics and race relations - all of which play key parts in Barry's story. At times, Barry seems to range too widely. What, for example, could St. Louis' James Buchanan Eads (of Eads Bridge fame) have to do with a 20th-century flood far to the south? Why does Barry spend so much time on the history of the aristocratic elite of New Orleans and the economics of sharecropping in the Mississippi Delta? What does all of that matter? A lot, as it happens - too much to detail in a review, but enough to make reading this well-written book a fascinating excursion into the past. (Buchanan, for example, quarreled with the Army Corps of Engineers over the value of levees - a quarrel that persists to our day. …