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David FutrelleOn a quiet day, the Mississippi River seems to flow as gently as a burbling brook, but that outward calm is deceiving. "The Mississippi never lies at rest," John M. Barry writes in his often fascinating account of the Great Flood of 1927. "It roils. It follows no set course. Its waters and currents are not uniform. Rather, it moves south in layers and whorls, like an uncoiling rope made up of a multitude of discrete fibers, each one following an independent and unpredictable path, each one separately and together capable of snapping like a whip." And when the river begins to fill with more water than it can handle, it becomes quite a formidable force indeed -- as generations of Americans have learned.
Rising Tide tells the story of a slow-motion, not-quite-natural disaster of tremendous proportions. The proximate cause of the disaster was the rain that fell on the Midwest in torrents for months and months without pause, saturating the earth and overflowing the innumerable tributaries that flow into the Mississippi River. But the disaster was magnified, as many disasters are, by human hubris -- in this case the hubris of 19th century engineers who firmly believed (with typical Victorian confidence) that even this great river could be reined in. The levees they built to contain the river in many ways exacerbated the disaster, raising it to higher levels and increasing both its speed and its force -- so that when the levees fell (as, faced with the record rains of 1927, they inevitably would) the damage was more severe than would have been the result of a flood uncontained, or better controlled with a combination of outlets and reservoirs alongside the levees. Ultimately, nearly one million Americans were left homeless by the flood. Several hundred lost their lives, it is estimated.
Barry tells the tale of the flood through the stories of the "large men" whose words and actions most influenced its course -- from head Army engineer Andrew Atkinson Humphreys, whose stubborn insistence on a "levees only" policy in the 19th century contributed mightily to disaster in the 20th, to powerful Sen. LeRoy Percy of Mississippi (grandfather of novelist Walker Percy). Though at its best it's as gripping as a good disaster flick, Rising Tide can meander as unpredictably as the river itself. Barry spends too much time hashing over biographical details and not enough elucidating the effects of the river's slow fury.
Despite these flaws, Rising Tide is both a bracing history and a cogent warning. In an age when self-professed futurists speak blithely of living in virtual worlds beyond the prison of human flesh and the laws of physics, it is worth remembering that nature has a habit of reasserting itself. -- Salon