Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Hoover and the 1927 Mississippi Flood

Until Katrina, the worst flood of American history was the 1927 Mississippi flood and it was flood relief that made Herbert Hoover a household name in the US. What kind of damage are we talking:

The human and geographical extent of the 1927 Mississippi River Flood speaks for itself:

  • 16.5 million acres flooded in seven states
  • 637,000 people dislocated
  • $102 million in crop losses
  • 162,000 homes flooded
  • 41,000 buildings destroyed
  • 6,000 boats used in rescue
  • 250 to 500 deaths.

There were 154 Red Cross camps that cared for refugees. All camps were segregated. Many other refugees stayed with friends or relatives.

President Coolidge delegated the task of flood relief to his Secretary of Commerce, Herbert Hoover. Hoover had already done relief work in Europe and helped "tame the Colorado" and quickly jumped into this huge new project:

Hoover's faith in American generosity and know-how was dramatically confirmed in the spring of 1927, when the Mississippi River rushed over its bank, flooding 20,000 square miles under a sheet of yellow water and leaving 600,000 people without shelter. Over three hundred people died in the greatest natural disaster in American history.

Hoover rushed to the scene to assess needs and direct resources where most needed. He went on the radio to raise $15,000,000 for the Red Cross. Coordinating the efforts of eight separate government agencies as well as the Red Cross, the Secretary of Commerce assembled an armada of 600 ships, ordered a trainload of feed from Chicago (promising, "We'll settle this later"), and organized vast tent cities for tens of thousands of refugees. Hoover's relief was color-blind; in one southern city he brusquely told a group of white businessmen that unless they produced $5 million by the time his train left he would start transporting neglected Blacks north that same night.

Visiting ninety-one communities, Hoover's message was the same in each: "A couple of thousand refugees are coming. They've got to have accommodations. Huts. Water mains. Sewers. Streets. Dining halls. Meals. Doctors. Everything. And you haven't got months to do it. You haven't got weeks. You've got hours. That's my train."

"I suppose I could have called in the whole of the Army," said Hoover later. "But what was the use? All I had to do was to call in Main Street itself."

This flood relief would be part of what would help Hoover get elected. President Coolidge was very much against giving federal flood relief, believing that it should be taken care of locally. Coolidge was afraid of setting a precedent of federal aid to local communities. It would take a huge effort on Congress' part to get Coolidge to sign the flood relief bill. Herbert Hoover would be criticized during the Depression for the same opinion - that local communities should put up the money, not the federal government. You'll note that in the segement from the Hoover library, Hoover says that he didn't need the army, but rather "Main Street." This is the same theory he would use to justify that Depression relief needed to be done locally.

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