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  • Writer's pictureSeth Masket

The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 is the COVID-19 Metaphor You're Looking For

Cape Girardeau, Missouri, during the flood of 1927

I’ve seen a number of people struggling to find an appropriate historical and political analogy for whatever we’re currently living through. (Kevin Kruse's Disaster Voltron may be the best.) I’d like to suggest that a particularly apt one is the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. 

Now, two quick caveats: First, I’m no historian, and second, basically everything I know about this flood comes from John Barry’s excellent 1997 book Rising Tide. But here’s what I do know.

The flood was the product of several freak storms in the winter and spring of 1927. The flood surge destroyed the homes of roughly 700,000 people as it worked its way down the Mississippi River, killing 500 people and flooding 27,000 square miles of land (an area larger than West Virginia). Damages in today's currency would likely exceed a trillion dollars. It remains the most destructive river flood in American history. 

Here’s the part that really echoes: as the flood surge approached New Orleans, city leaders there made a fateful decision to dynamite the levees that were protecting the poorer regions of St. Bernard Parish and Plaquemines Parish, saving the city’s wealthier neighborhoods. 

Now, the specific details of the flood aren’t that much like the COVID-19 virus, obviously. But the similarities lie in what the flood revealed about the society it tore apart.

As Barry argues, a powerful popular belief at the time was the idea of noblesse oblige, the idea that the wealthy and powerful would look after everyone else because it was their obligation to do so. Of course there was rampant economic and racial inequality in the 1920s and well prior to that, but it wasn’t so bad because the people on top would take care of everyone else when the chips were down. 

That philosophy died hard when New Orleans city leaders blew the levees. Now, I need to be clear what “city leaders” here means. As Barry describes it, the leaders were not so much elected officials as they were the city elders, leaders of prominent families, and especially the elite clubs known as krewes who held the real power in town. (Krewes today have much more pleasant tasks like creating Mardi Gras floats — back then they more or less ran the city.)

The flood, and the calloused and self-dealing manner in which city elites responded to its threat, undermined their rule and the ideology of noblesse oblige that had propped them up for so long. Poorer citizens would no longer trust elites to do the right thing in a crisis. The flood’s aftermath created an environment for populist politicians like Huey Long to rise to power by running against the elite families. Herbert Hoover, then the US Secretary of Commerce, organized a massive federal relief effort in the region, setting a precedent for federal remedies for local and regional catastrophes (and also bolstering his 1928 presidential run). 

Importantly, when the Great Depression hit a few years later, there was little expectation that local elites or wealthy patrons would remedy the problems. The federal government was expected to fix it.

We may be seeing something like this at work today, although we are still only at the beginning stages of the Coronavirus pandemic. President Trump, while seeking efforts to shore up the economy, has largely resisted using governing tools like the Defense Production Act to respond to demands for masks and ventilators and virus tests, instead insisting that governors and private industry should be doing more. 

The billionaires that form our modern economic elite class have responded in a mixed way. Bill Gates has offered millions to support vaccine research, and Elon Musk has purchased ventilators for hospital systems. Meanwhile, Jeff Bezos created a fund to encourage other people to donate to his Amazon employees facing financial difficulties, and Richard Branson initially told his employees to take eight weeks of unpaid leave before changing his tune following a public blowback.

Meanwhile, Republican elected officials and conservative media personalities continue to express worries that providing relief to displaced workers will incentivize laziness, and some suggest that the deaths of the elderly are worth it for the sake of shoring up the economy. 

This isn’t 1927, of course, but these arguments may not look particularly great in hindsight. And while it's still too early to have a real idea of how the economic and medical catastrophes currently unfolding will affect the November election, the modern version of noblesse oblige -- that billionaire innovation justifies economic inequality and that economic productivity justifies a paltry welfare state -- may be seen as suffering greatly at the ballot box.

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