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Volume 17, Number 9
The Mississippi River Basin is the largest river basin in the world, and stretches from New York to Idaho and from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. In the course of American history, the river often flooded, but not until 1927 had so many people been killed and left homeless and never had such a large land area been covered by water. It was the greatest flood in history, but this fact is not as well known: government caused it. In the wake of the devastation of Lincoln's war, the Army Corps of Engineers achieved permanent control of the rivers with the establishment of the Mississippi River Commission. Ignoring science and experience, military engineers consistently marched to the tune of the "levees-only theory," which in practice requires a huge capital and maintenance expense to build and maintain these ever-higher earth- and stoneworks to hold back the floodwater.
A "levees-only" approach caused sediment to accumulate on the river bottom forcing engineers to regularly raise the level of the levees to hold the same amount of water. The mighty Mississippi River had literally been lifted above ground level in many places. It is obvious that this strategy created the potential for increasingly severe flood damage. Engineering science, common experience, and economics all point to a strategy that combines levees with outlets and reservoirs to handle floods and other engineering techniques like cutoffs and jetties to straighten the river and increase the river's flow, sediment capacity, and bottom-scouring ability. Civil engineers like James Eads and Charles Ellet understood this strategy. But the government's military engineers relied solely on levees even though their own data and studies contradicted this approach. The result was both costly and dangerous.
The original 7.5 foot levee at Morganza, Louisiana, was able to maintain the Great Flood of 1850 but by the 1920s the levee required a 38-foot height to hold the same amount of water. In the Great Flood of 1927 the Durina Levee broke, flooding 175,000 acres. When the levee at Mounds Landing broke, water covered one million acres with water ten feet deep. Estimates place the death toll in the Mississippi Delta alone at as high as 1,000 people. Damage estimates ranged as high as 1 billion (1927) dollars.
Unfortunately, the death and damage of the Great Flood of 1927 was just a drop in the bucket for what was to come. Herbert Hoover, the original New Dealer, was put in charge of federal flood relief. He traveled through the flood zone and made plans for all aspects of life for flood victims. His program called for concentration camps for flood refugees, retraining programs, and financial credit provided by the government. He wanted to replace the free-labor plantation system that had successfully turned swamps into the most productive farmland in the world with a land-reform program that would subdivide land into inefficient small farms.
The flood made Hoover into a major national figure. He was one of the first to make a national radio address and all this exposure was the springboard for Hoover winning the presidency in 1928. But all the fame and attention wasn't enough. He had to embellish it. Hoover claimed that not six people had lost their lives to floods since he had taken control. According to historian John M. Barry, "his claim was a lie."
In fact the whole affair was a lie. While Hoover soaked up power and recognition, flood relief was actually provided by private charity, non-profit groups, and local organizations while most of Hoover's ideas were ignored. The self-deluded Hoover grew ever more confident that if his rehabilitation plans worked for flood relief, he could use these fascist policies as a model to solve all the nation's problems. The flood therefore marked an important shift towards big national government. And according to Barry, this shift "presaged and prepared for far greater changes that would soon come." Those changes that occurred during the Hoover and Roosevelt administrations are now known as the New Deal.
Another terrible legacy of the Great Flood was Hoover's Tri-State River Commission that established full federal control over the entire Mississippi River. According to Barry, "even in the narrowest sense this (Commission) set a precedent of direct comprehensive and vastly expanded federal involvement of local affairs." Federal control of rivers also resulted in many new programs designed to alleviate the problems associated with government flood control such as federally subsidized flood insurance, flood relief programs, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. As every flood and government response since has made clear, government only wastes resources when it attempts to prevent floods while it continues to increase the danger and destructiveness of future floods.
Mark Thornton is O.P. Alford III Resident Scholar at the Mises Institute and a contributing editor to The Free Market. Further reading: John M. Barry, Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America (Simon and Schuster, 1998).