Thursday, September 22, 2011

[Book Review] MEMPHIS AND THE SUPER FLOOD OF 1937 by Patrick O'Daniel

Nonfiction/Memphis History

Wayne reviews MEMPHIS AND THE SUPER FLOOD OF 1937: HIGH WATER BLUES by Patrick O’Daniel (History Press, 2010)

In January 1937 the Mississippi River overflowed its extensive system of levees, displacing over 200,000 Mid-Southerners, destroying homes and farms in a 12 state area and causing 137 deaths. The Ohio and Mississippi Valley flood of 1937 was the worst flood ever visited upon the region and one of the most devastating natural disasters in American history. Despite these grim statistics the 1937 flood has receded in popular memory to such a point that virtually no one remembers it ever took place. Fortunately this has been corrected by librarian and historian Patrick O' Daniel in his book Memphis and the Super Flood of 1937.

In the first decades of the 20th Century flooding increased dramatically in the Ohio and Mississippi Valleys which convinced the Army Corps of Engineers that it was only a matter of time before a “super flood” would lay waste to the region and this belief only increased after the Mississippi Valley flood of 1927. The widespread devastation caused by the 1927 flood led to the passage of the Flood Control Act of 1928 which “committed the federal government to a definite program of flood control, including new levees, as well as floodways, channel improvements and stabilization and tributary basin improvements.”(29) The concerns that led to the passage of the 1928 flood control act became real when heavy rains saturated the region in the winter of 1937, causing the super flood many engineers and political leaders feared.

Because of its size and geographical location, Memphis played an integral role both in the relief effort and the development of a comprehensive flood control program for the lower Mississippi Valley. As O’Daniel argues, the “events of 1937 not only mark a turning point in flood control but also illustrate the importance of Memphis regionally and nationally. Memphians played vital roles during and after the superflood by providing the major regional refugee sanctuary and convincing the reluctant federal government to introduce new flood control to the region. Of course other cities played important roles, but a careful examination of sources shows that Memphis was the most influential city in the region during the disaster.”(129) Responsibility for these efforts fell to the powerful Democratic political machine led by E. H. Crump. Governmental resources were quickly overwhelmed by the onslaught of thousands of refugees and the rising flood waters in the north Memphis industrial area. The situation was made much worse when Crump dictatorially snatched control of relief efforts from Mayor Watkins Overton because he doubted his ability to adequately handle the crisis. The ensuing chaos momentarily weakened the city’s response to the disaster but, as the author persuasively argues, “Ed Crump remained politically secure as his machine emerged from the flood and the subsequent fight for flood-control funding.”(130)

Although by necessity O’Daniel focuses on the politics surrounding relief and subsequent flood control, he never ignores the human misery caused by the high waters or the selflessness of many Memphians to relieve that misery. We are indeed fortunate that O’Daniel has rescued from oblivion one of the most significant events in the history of Memphis and the United States with his important book.

Wayne Dowdy, History and Social Sciences Department

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