The Thousand-Year Flood: The Ohio-Mississippi Disaster of 1937 (review)
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The Thousand-Year Flood: The Ohio-Mississippi Disaster of 1937. By David Welky. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011. Pp. 384. $27.50 cloth; $18.00 e-book)

In the late 1920s and 1930s, the United States experienced a series of environmental disasters. In 1927, the Lower Mississippi River overtopped the elaborate levee system of the Army Corps of Engineers and inundated millions of acres of rich agricultural land south of Cairo, Illinois. At least five hundred people, mostly poor African American sharecroppers, died in the flood. From 1931 to 1940, drought and severe wind erosion ravaged the southern Great Plains, creating one of the worst ecological and economic catastrophes in the history of the nation. Then, in 1937, an ocean of water descended the Ohio River, sinking one rivertown after another in the greatest flood to strike the Ohio Valley since the advent of European-American [End Page 223] settlement. Even though these three environmental calamities occurred in different geographical areas and at different times, each originated from a capitalist ethos that placed the maximization of profit above all other considerations—including sound land-use practices.

David Welky examines the little-known Ohio flood of 1937 in his book, The Thousand-Year Flood: The Ohio-Mississippi Disaster of 1937. Welky describes the meteorological reasons for the flood, the slow, creeping rise of the floodwaters, the inundation of towns and cities, the flood experiences of valley residents, the disaster response of the federal government, and the reconstruction of communities following the tragedy.

The strongest chapter in the book explains how the Army Corps of Engineers and regional congressional representatives killed the Roosevelt administration’s postflood effort to establish a rational, scientific, basin-wide, nonstructural approach to flooding in the Ohio basin. Scientists and federal officials—including Hugh Bennett of the Soil Conservation Service—wanted to mitigate flooding along the Ohio (and other U.S. rivers) by allowing the river into its former floodplain, pulling back structures in the valley, curtailing runoff on agricultural lands through soil-conservation techniques, and reforesting the highlands in the basin. But as Welky states, “national legislators stifled the arguments of those who favored ceding territory to the [nation’s] rivers.” Consequently, in the aftermath of the flood, the Army Corps of Engineers built expensive structures to check the high flows of the Ohio—including a floodwall at Louisville, Kentucky.

There are problems with the book. The author occasionally delves into topics that are only marginally relevant to the larger story. At one point, he addresses tenant farming in the South, when the main geographic focus of the book is the Midwest. In describing some events, he provides too many details. For example, he could have reduced the amount of text devoted to the new use of radio during the flood. The book also suffers from topical disorganization. For [End Page 224] instance, Welky writes of the mid-nineteenth-century Ohio and then quickly jumps to the 1930s and the Roosevelt administration. The reader is left wondering what happened along the Ohio during the intervening eighty years. Welky also does not sufficiently explain the causes of the flood. There is almost no discussion of agricultural practices within the Ohio basin, urban development in the floodplain, or deforestation in the uplands of Appalachia. The author’s arguments, particularly his contention that the federal government needed to regulate agriculture in the basin, would have been strengthened had he elaborated on how agriculture contributed to the flood.

In 2011, the Missouri experienced its greatest flood since 1952. Flooding occurred along the river from Montana to Missouri. Neither levees nor the six main-stem dams of the Army Corps of Engineers could contain the Mighty Mo. The causes of the flood were almost wholly manmade. Climate change; the mismanagement of the upstream dams and reservoirs; the recent conversion of thousands of square miles of Conservation Reserve Program acres to cropland; urban development in the floodplain; and the narrow navigation channel south of Sioux City brought down the floodwaters upon Missouri Valley residents. But just like in 1937, the Army Corps of Engineers and farmers along the Missouri sought to place the blame for the...