The Storm After the Storm
By DAVID BROOKS
Hurricanes come in two waves. First comes the rainstorm, and then comes what the historian John Barry calls the "human storm" - the recriminations, the political conflict and the battle over compensation. Floods wash away the surface of society, the settled way things have been done. They expose the underlying power structures, the injustices, the patterns of corruption and the unacknowledged inequalities. When you look back over the meteorological turbulence in this nation's history, it's striking how often political turbulence followed.
In 1889 in Pennsylvania, a great flood washed away much of Johnstown. The water's crushing destruction sounded to one person like a "lot of horses grinding oats." Witnesses watched hundreds of people trapped on a burning bridge, forced to choose between burning to death or throwing themselves into the churning waters to drown.
The flood was so abnormal that the country seemed to have trouble grasping what had happened. The national media were filled with wild exaggerations and fabrications: stories of rivers dammed with corpses, of children who died while playing ring-around-the-rosy and who were found with their hands still clasped and with smiles still on their faces.
Prejudices were let loose. Hungarians then were akin to today's illegal Mexican immigrants - hard-working people who took jobs no one else wanted. Newspapers carried accounts of gangs of Hungarian men cutting off dead women's fingers to steal their rings. "Drunken Hungarians, Dancing, Singing, Cursing and Fighting Amid the Ruins" a New York Herald headline blared.
Then, as David McCullough notes in "The Johnstown Flood," public fury turned on the Pittsburgh millionaires whose club's fishing pond had emptied on the town. The Chicago Herald depicted the millionaires as Roman aristocrats, seeking pleasure while the poor died like beasts in the Coliseum.
Even before the flood, public resentment was building against the newly rich industrialists. Protests were growing against the trusts, against industrialization and against the new concentrations of wealth. The Johnstown flood crystallized popular anger, for the fishing club was indeed partly to blame. Public reaction to the disaster helped set the stage for the progressive movement and the trust-busting that was to come.
In 1900, another great storm hit the U.S., killing over 6,000 people in Galveston, Tex. The storm exposed racial animosities, for this time stories (equally false) swept through the press accusing blacks of cutting off the fingers of corpses to steal wedding rings. The devastation ended Galveston's chance to beat out Houston as Texas' leading port.
Then in 1927, the great Mississippi flood rumbled down upon New Orleans. As Barry writes in his account, "Rising Tide," the disaster ripped the veil off the genteel, feudal relations between whites and blacks, and revealed the festering iniquities. Blacks were rounded up into work camps and held by armed guards. They were prevented from leaving as the waters rose. A steamer, the Capitol, played "Bye Bye Blackbird" as it sailed away. The racist violence that followed the floods helped persuade many blacks to move north.
Civic leaders intentionally flooded poor and middle-class areas to ease the water's pressure on the city, and then reneged on promises to compensate those whose homes were destroyed. That helped fuel the populist anger that led to Huey Long's success. Across the country people demanded that the federal government get involved in disaster relief, helping to set the stage for the New Deal. The local civic elite turned insular and reactionary, and New Orleans never really recovered its preflood vibrancy.
We'd like to think that the stories of hurricanes and floods are always stories of people rallying together to give aid and comfort. And, indeed, each of America's great floods has prompted a popular response both generous and inspiring. But floods are also civic examinations. Amid all the stories that recur with every disaster - tales of sudden death and miraculous survival, the displacement and the disease - there is also the testing.
Civic arrangements work or they fail. Leaders are found worthy or wanting. What's happening in New Orleans and Mississippi today is a human tragedy. But take a close look at the people you see wandering, devastated, around New Orleans: they are predominantly black and poor. The political disturbances are still to come.