by Susan Scott Parrish
As North Carolina towns like Goldsboro, Kinston, and Lumberton experience intense flooding long after Hurricane Matthew veered away from the coast, we are reminded again how disasters can take their own sluggish time. In the current case, it has taken days for intense rain water to move from inland streams to larger rivers, raising them to record heights. “This is going to be a prolonged event,” announced North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory, after having signed an expedited Major Disaster Declaration for his beleaguered state.
My book, which is just about to be released with Princeton University Press, considers a different “prolonged event,” a “superflood” which took not three or four days to arrive, but rather months. The Flood Year 1927: A Cultural History is about the year-long disaster known colloquially as “The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927.” In a magnified version of the 2016 disaster, intense rains and snow fell for months throughout the upper branches of the river system, creating upstream flooding. Then these swollen tributaries all disgorged into the Lower Mississippi River simultaneously, evincing what one commentator at the time called a “sinister rhythm.”
If you have been following Hurricane Matthew and its path through Haiti, Florida and North Carolina, you understand that in the modern era, we experience most disasters virtually. I started thinking about this issue of virtual disaster consumption in the days surrounding, and months following, the New Orleans levee disaster of 2005 (“Katrina”). I began to wonder: how and why do disasters become publicly meaningful? Why do certain environmental catastrophes receive scant attention while others seem to place our national character on public trial? Is attention an unqualified good? How should we communicate with ourselves about disasters, especially now, in a time when human activity largely determines their makeup?
After much research, I came to realize that the first U.S. disaster to occur in a media landscape as well as in an industrialized, stress-bearing environment much like our own was the Mississippi Flood of 1927. The ways in which this flood went public, and then lost unified public meaning and indeed national attention, represent a fascinating case in modern disaster communication and consumption.
The 1927 flood was a humanly caused event. Deforestation, wetlands drainage, and monoculture farming throughout the Mississippi watershed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century seriously reduced the storage capacity of its soil. Moreover, designers of the flood protection system elected not to mimic an alluvial basin’s own mechanisms for holding and dispersing water in times of overflow. Engineers decided instead to impound the river within a towering levee system. Months of very intense rain and snowfall turned this precarious situation into catastrophe in the Lower Mississippi Valley as levees, and more levees, burst—one was even intentionally detonated to save the wealthy banking center and port of New Orleans. Over 600,000 people—mostly African American—were made homeless, land in seven states was inundated, thirteen major crevasses occurred, as many as 1,000 people died, and a year’s worth of cotton and sugar crops were ruined. The Red Cross was established, and the National Guard patrolled 154 “concentration camps” to house the evacuees but also to keep the Delta’s labor force in place.
Media technologies which produced this flood for a virtual audience were distinctly modern. Wired telegraphy, aerial photography, recorded music, documentary film, a rapid and extensive AP service, and a brand new nationwide radio system were all put into use to transport this flood into homes in the US and around the world. In the wake of World War I, moreover, governmental organizations knew how to use narrative and representational techniques to weld its citizenry into a unified mass. As communications theorist Harold Laswell put it in 1926, speaking of machine-age propaganda, “more can be won by illusion than by coercion.”
The flood of 1927 did seem to configure, at the flip of an all-powerful speaker switch, a coherent public audience. FEMA did not yet exist and Congress refused to appropriate special funds, so the Red Cross had to commandeer the communications infrastructure of the nation to involve the public in the work and cost of relief. Newspapers, movie houses, vaudeville stages, and radio stations became vital pathways in a top-down, diffusive program of national coherence. It was not just any story though which made the “huge relief machine” hum, but a particular story about historical redemption. Because the course of the flood moved from north to south, retracing the 1863 river-borne assault on the Confederate strongholds of Mississippi and Louisiana, this flood had the peculiar power to make sixty-four-year-old history feel unfinished—to make it feel even biologically reenacted. When Herbert Hoover, the Commerce Secretary in charge of rescue and relief operations, first spoke to a national radio audience, he thus summoned memories of the Civil War. He imagined a new battle being waged between an invading “water enemy” and the people of “our South,” a “great army of unfortunate people.” Northern whites cast themselves this time around, in the words of The New York Times, as “an army of rescuers.” The Red Cross and its news outlets positioned this flood as a redemptive reenactment of the War between the States. This “illusion,” to use Laswell’s word, summoned national investment for about one month, and then public feeling split along regional and racial lines.
Sociologists at this time believed that disasters acted like helpful galvanic events to reset and repair a given society’s structural problems. The North’s disaster narrative, while it did symbolically bring accord, did nothing to actually address southern, and particularly, black southern, economic and political grievances. White southerners came to express with great trenchancy their dissenting view that this calamity was neither natural nor redemptive, but was due to mainly northern environmental practices and the Federal government’s misguided levees-only policy. When they looked at the water destroying their crops, they saw Yankee water.
Advocates for southern black farm laborers likewise found old politics written all over the flood. As conditions in the evacuee camps spelled for their black populations both forced labor and violently guarded movement, it seemed to many that slavery had returned to Dixie, and that northern institutions were abetting its reestablishment. W.E.B. Du Bois, Ida B. Wells, Walter White and others publicly decried this situation in The Crisis, The Chicago Defender, and The Nation.
Whites outside the South began to lose enthusiasm too for Hoover’s “reconstruction machine.” Valiant scenarios of rescuing southern brethren gave way to a regretful feeling that the South was forever an intractable “problem.” H.L. Mencken acerbically wondered why anyone would care about such a backward place of “tinpot revivals” and anti-intellectualism. And others just felt the story had grown dull. An editorial in The Nation averred that “people can stand only so much calamity. After a while it begins to pall, and finally it has no meaning whatever.” Another complained that the flood, lacking the dramatic unities of place and time, was aesthetically unsatisfying. And another observed that it is very hard to care for “a mud-besmattered mass of human beings” because only individual peril really moves an audience.
Once the flood slipped from the national headlines, it continued for some time to resonate in the black press and in the southern press. Eventually the event took up lodging in the imaginations, and the work of two of our major authors, who both happen to hail from Mississippi. Richard Wright and William Faulkner were young men living in or near the flood zone in 1927; each read Memphis’ paper, The Commercial Appeal, and its refutation of the dominant northern flood narrative. Wright was an avid reader of the black press coverage as well. For the next thirteen years, floods would seep into their fiction. While we tend to associate the Great War with modern narrative experimentation, for these two American authors, it was the 1927 flood which brought home the realization that the world was run on chance and risk, and, even more, that humans had made their physical and social worlds still more violently unpredictable.
In the 1920s, the Gulf South represented a leading edge of environmental peril. The region made manifest early what has since become more globally shared. Wright, Faulkner, and other attentive southern authors and performers of that day help us even now think about which stories, and which ways of bending language, comport most searchingly with the world of diffuse, chronic environmental risk in which we now live.
Susan Scott Parrish is a Professor in the Department of English and the Program in the Environment at the University of Michigan. Her book, The Flood Year 1927: A Cultural History, will be published this January.