[Marxism] Katrina puts author in the spotlight- 'The Rising Tide'

Calvin Broadbent calvinbroadbent at hotmail.com
Sat Oct 1 10:30:46 MDT 2005


Katrina puts author in the spotlight
By David Mehegan, Globe Staff  |  September 10, 2005

Every good book has its time, but that time doesn't always come right away. 
That's certainly true for New Orleans writer John M. Barry and his 1997 
book, ''Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed 

Since Hurricane Katrina hit, the eight-year-old book has been as high as No. 
10 on the Amazon.com bestseller list. Pursued hotly by national media, Barry 
has been interviewed on C-SPAN and NPR's ''Morning Edition" (scheduled to 
air Monday), and tomorrow he'll appear with Tim Russert on NBC's ''Meet the 
Press." Meanwhile, publisher Simon & Schuster has returned to press for 
17,500 more copies, as warehouse supplies dwindle.

A Providence native and former football coach, Barry, who was in Washington 
when the hurricane struck, is a distinguished visiting scholar at Tulane 
University. He has published three other books, including last year's ''The 
Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History." In the 
1990s, he turned to an almost-forgotten episode in American history. In 
1927, the rising Mississippi River threatened to flood New Orleans. Local 
officials ordered the levees upstream of the city breached to divert the 
water. But as a result, vast rural areas were flooded, hundreds were killed, 
thousands of poor black residents became homeless, and damage ran (in 
today's dollars) in the billions.

The flood's political and social impact was as great as the natural. Rage at 
how the poor, especially African-Americans, were sacrificed to protect the 
affluent boosted the careers of Louisiana politico Huey Long and future 
president Herbert Hoover. The disaster unleashed the epic migration of black 
Americans out of the South and into northern cities. It also led to a new 
idea in America -- that the federal government, not state or local 
government, must take responsibility for regional flood-control systems and 
disaster relief. That new idea, Barry wrote, paved the way for the Tennessee 
Valley Authority and other massive federal projects of the Great Depression.

Barry's book was never a bestseller, but it sold consistently over time, 
especially in paperback. Now, its chronicle of a natural disaster caused, or 
made worse, by human folly and complacency, has drawn renewed attention.

Q. What drew you to the great flood as a book subject?

I had always wanted to write about the Mississippi River. This mythic force, 
which seems so central to America, had always fascinated me. Growing up in 
Rhode Island, I had never heard of the flood. At the time of the 50th 
anniversary, I was writing a sports column for the Vieux Carre Courier [a 
New Orleans alternative weekly]. The local newspaper ignored the 
anniversary, but there was a special issue of the Courier, and I was 
astounded by the photos.

Q. Did knowing the 1927 history give you a sense of foreboding that 
something like it would happen again?

Everybody who knows anything knew that the levee system was underfunded, and 
that if we had another 1927 flood there would be a comparable disaster. The 
1927 flood was enormously greater, but a hurricane of Katrina's strength was 
predictable and expected.

Q. When you wrote the book, did you encounter an attitude that this event 
was long ago, far away, and could never happen again?

People in New Orleans have been well aware of the risk of this disaster 
happening. The Army Corps of Engineers loved the book. People never expect 
these things to happen to them, today. It will always happen to someone 
else, tomorrow. One of the definitions of leadership is to anticipate such 
dangers and prepare for them, despite a lethargic public.

Q. No one knows what the long-term repercussions of this disaster will be, 
but do you have any hunches?

In engineering terms, this will confirm that you need to incorporate into 
your planning the environmental implications, broadly defined. You have to 
look for unintended consequences. The construction of the levee system after 
the 1927 flood has contributed to the sinking of the land, for example. That 
was not considered at all. You have to look broadly at what you're doing.

In social policy, the political implications of the disastrous ''disaster 
relief" in the 1927 flood changed the way that people viewed their 
government. This time, we've seen the exposure of people who were left 
behind in every way. How politics will address that remains to be seen.

Q. What do you see ahead for New Orleans?

I think it will be rebuilt. The coastal erosion problem will be addressed. A 
lot of those houses are going to have to be bulldozed. But New Orleans is a 
unique city, architecturally. I think it would be a serious mistake to take 
away what makes New Orleans unique by putting up prefabricated housing.

Q. What's next for you?

I've been working on a book about the separation of church and state in the 
17th century. I've told people that I'm never doing another disaster book.

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