Everything at Once: Infrastructure, cooperatives, and the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927

John Barry's "Rising Tide" offers the 1927 Mississippi River Floods as a distinctly American look into race, markets, infrastructure, capitalism and cooperation. The breathtaking sweep of the flooding laid bare realities of society which persist in some forms today. Importantly, the floods set the stage for significant human manipulation of the Mississippi River over the next century, exacerbating many issues facing coastal and riverine communities today.

Setting the Stage

The Mississippi River has been one of the greatest vehicles of investment and economic development in American history. According to the National Park Service, the Mississippi River basin produces 92% of all exported ag products, and 60% of all exported grain is shipped down the Mississippi River. 

Of increasing importance is the river’s role in coastal erosion and climate resilience. Sediment deposits across the Delta have built more than 1,200 square miles of land over the past centuries. Man’s attempts to commercialize the river have affected that cadence and allowed coastline – Louisiana’s in particular – to erode at an alarming rate without replenishment. The Mississippi drives community resilience in much of the Gulf South, and it is worth examining its past and its present. John Barry’s Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How it Changed America is a great place to start.

The floods of 1927 are an underappreciated event in American history. The result of unpredicted, torrential rains and exacerbated by both infrastructure and policy, the flooding would cover 16 million acres of land, displacing nearly 640,000 people. Fearing catastrophic damage to the city of New Orleans, politicians, bankers, and engineers would eventually dynamite levees south of the city, intentionally flooding St. Bernard and Plaquemines Parishes. As with all natural disasters, the events lay bare society, including aspects of infrastructure deployment, collective investment organizations, and capital’s need for certainty.

Rising Tide is one of the best histories I’ve ever read. It has sparked a number of questions that I’ll explore in coming weeks. It’s worth finishing if you have the time. If not, a few initial observations follow and a summary is attached here.

Infrastructure + complexity

Deploying infrastructure in complex ecosystems is hard. Resilience is key. The Mississippi River is one of the most complex adaptive ecosystems in the world. Barry notes that “not only is it acted upon, it acts.” Infrastructure is formal response to the river and its resilience to changing circumstances is limited by engineering and the pace of decision-making. Levees in the 19th and early 20th century were not complemented by outlets, reservoirs, or spillways making them uniquely fragile to dramatic changes in the river. Additionally, the entities charged with managing infrastructure were neither agile nor responsive to new information. This combination of factors detached infrastructure deployment and flood response from the realities and needs of many communities up and down the river.

When infrastructure is fragile, resilience becomes a zero-sum game. The existence of levees anywhere on the river meant that levees became important up and down the river. Water had fewer opportunities to disperse naturally, and places experience more concentrated flooding in the absence of structural protection. When the levees broke at Mounds Landing, Mississippi, twice the volume of Niagara Falls rushed through the breach. As a corollary, infrastructure works or it catastrophically fails. In the case of the 1927 floods, your levees held or they didn’t. If other levees break, the water will drain faster, lower the pressure on the remaining levees. Through the months of February and April 1927, guards patrolled levees fearing sabotage. The logic of preservation was critical in the decision to breach the levees south of New Orleans. 

This is not to say that major projects are not critical. Scaled infrastructure is necessary to respond to large problems. It is to say that scaled infrastructure creates unforeseen consequences in proportion to its size (physically and organizationally). Centralization of information and strategy makes the atomic units of infrastructure larger.

Aid + verification as extensions of state power

The zero-sum mentality expands into the post-disaster environment as well. Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell explores the oft-ignored egalitarian nature of post-disaster environments, but society has a strong immune system and as soon as some semblance of order is restored, our worst tendencies around class and race seem to emerge as well. In the early 20th century, that meant a return to enslaved conditions for black Americans. In a 1912 incident, black laborers were made to lay in a levee breach for hours until sandbags could be secured. The New York Times called the idea “brilliant”. In 1927, the Red Cross operated 154 "concentration camps" for labor across levees in 6 states. The vast majority of workers were black. They were systematically collected in daily roundups in cities across the Delta. They worked under armed supervision. 

Nationally, this approach was justified by labeling individuals as “deserving” of aid. This is an ongoing and a problematic belief. In 1927, if you worked, you were deserving of food. Eventually, all black men were required to work in order to receive food aid. Black women and children had to prove they had no men present in their family in order to receive food aid. The only accepted proof was testimony by a white person. The impacts of such policies and events are written across American history, accelerating the Great Migration among many other things. As it related specifically to community-led structures, such treatment further emphasized the need for autarky in black communities via cooperatives and mutual benefit societies. The experience also added further validation to the time-tested belief that “verification” of work or status would be used against these communities rather than for them.

The integration of community-led structures into scaled sources of funding such as capital markets or government programs will require some verified provision of resource or labor in return for compensation. At many points in history, this work has been unjustly distributed, undercompensated, and inhumanely verified. Many changes to structure, methodology, and power dynamics will be required if communities are to become willing participants.

Infrastructure + money

Decisions related to infrastructure are equally (if not more) driven by financial and a political realities, as much as scientific ones. This is not a fresh insight, but the degree to which it was proven true in the 1927 floods remains remarkable. The decision to dynamite the levees south of New Orleans was driven by a group of bankers who worried that flooding in the city would impair access to correspondent banks in New York and London. Even as it became apparent that other levees would fail and water heights might lower without direct action, the bankers advanced their plan on principle. In their approval commentary, the Army Corps said they would prefer to wait and see if the river would lower, but felt forced to dynamite "for the psychological effect." According to one banker, "perhaps [New Orleans] would have been safe without dynamiting the levee. But its reputation would not have been."

The decision to dynamite the levee was not the only place that capital’s need for certainty appeared. In the wake of the flood, there was a massive credit crunch for two reasons, both related to collateral. First, 50% of the region’s collateral was destroyed. More than half the livestock drowned, crops were underwater, and buildings were washed away. Farmers needed to borrow to rebuild and replant, but couldn’t do so without collateral. Secondly, the banks were supposed to lend against damage claims that would eventually be paid by government. Banks, however, declared that they would only accept finalized claims as collateral. This created an impossible situation in which people had to file undersized claims based on what little they could verify while their land was flooded, or wait months for the waters to recede. This was a desired effect, not an unintended consequence.

Federal recovery efforts were overseen by Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, whose role in the much-publicized flood response would bring him the Presidency. He saw the chaos in credit markets as an opportunity to restructure the Southern economy around cooperatives and community independence. He created a unique banking structure in which local funds were matched by national investor funds, and then insured by federal credit agencies. Hoover was, however, fundamentally elitist. He did not trust communities to manage their own resources, and rather than collective organization, desired community execution of centralized planning. His financial institutions had the same overly rigid, top-down definitions of collateral and as a result, deployed only 5% of raised funds.

Collateral is critical in the banking system. It has been used against communities as often as it has been used for them. While communities can take steps to create new collateral, financial institutions may also need to change their understanding of the structure. Certainly, financial institutions cannot have unilateral ability to define, verify, and service collateral. In this vein, it’s compelling that cooperative and community-led structures were once (if briefly) a major topic of conversation in American politics. They may be again.

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