The Thousand Year Flood: The Ohio-Mississippi Disaster of 1937

Article excerpt

The Thousand Year Flood: The Ohio-Mississippi Disaster of 1937. By David Welky. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011. Pp. xiv, 355. Maps, illustrations, acknowledgments, notes, index. $27.50.)

David Welky's well-written and informative book provides the only comprehensive account of the most serious flood of the twentieth century, one that struck the Ohio and lower Mississippi River valleys with great ferocity in 1937. Published by the University of Chicago Press, which is issuing some of the best books in environmental history these days, The Thousand Year Flood may cause historians to rethink the primacy of the more famous 1927 flood in reshaping government policy toward natural disasters. In its early chapters, the book provides an in-depth analysis of nineteenth and early twentieth-century engineering perspectives on flood control and the role of the Army Corps of Engineers. A later chapter focuses, in part, on the emerging science of weather forecasting and how its limitations affected the disaster. One of the most fascinating aspects of this book, however, is Welky's careful elucidation of how Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal coped with the disaster. His book covers much of the same ground that Sarah T. Phillips traverses in This Nation, This Land: Conservation Policy, Rural America, and the New Deal (2007), but while Phillips provides a more general study of Roosevelt's larger perspective on conservation, Welky uses the flood of 1937 to shed light on policy-making during a specific and terrible national disaster and its long-term implications.

Welky's treatment of the nineteenth-century rivalry between the Army Corps of Engineers' Andrew Humphreys and Charles Ellet, Jr., then a civil engineer, is more comprehensive than John Barry's analysis in Rising Tide (1997), a book that covered the 1927 flood. Welky's account is also more engaging. While Barry fashioned his narrative with a broad brush, perhaps oversimplifying the contest between the two engineers, Welky does more than simply fill in some gaps. His narrative includes crucial biographical information about both men, information that is at once more illuminating and memorable. Both were deeply flawed and highly ambitious men-onthe- make who espoused very different perspectives on controlling the nation's rivers. Although not entirely sound, Ellet's mix of levees and reservoirs was the better approach, but his untimely death in 1862 leftthe field open to Humphreys. …


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