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After the Flood

Wikimedia Commons

The Mississippi flood of 1927 never received from the daily press the attention its magnitude deserved; and a few weeks ago the transatlantic flights crowded it out of the news almost entirely. Probably most persons have comfortably assumed that, with the waters receding and the refugees being returned to their homes, the worst is now over. This is, of course, true, so far as immediate physical peril is concerned; but it is far from being true in regard to the economic plight of the victims. As to this, it may truthfully be said that the most serious phase is still in the future; and that it constitutes one of the gravest problems the nation has faced since the Great War.

The waters are now at last receding, after having overflowed again in the annual "June rise" which inundated many districts for the third time this year. The process is so slow, however, that it will be weeks before it is completed. Ninety-five percent of Washington County, Mississippi, is still under water, and will remain so until August 1 at least. On June 25, two-thirds of all the inundated lands in Louisiana were still submerged. After an extensive survey. Secretary Hoover has announced that, of 3,500,000 acres of land in the flood area, 1,300,000 acres cannot be used this year under any circumstances. As to the other 2,200,000 acres, everything depends upon the weather. If we should have a long hot summer, some sort of crop can be raised; if the weather continues cold and cloudy, the results will be nil. Many planters of cotton have been throwing the seed into the mud at the earliest possible moment after the waters have receded, an experiment the outcome of which is still uncertain. Others are planting corn, potatoes, cabbages and hay, or are experimenting with wholly unfamiliar crops like the soybean.

Many of the refugees, as they return home, face a huge task in merely preparing their land for cultivation and their homes for occupancy. The fertile fields of early spring are now a sea of mud. In some places, the soil is still almost completely saturated with water; in others, it has been baked by the sun to an adobe-like mass; often it is covered with barren sand. The returning inhabitants find many buildings swept away, others off their foundations, perhaps overturned; and, in every case, the doors and windows of lowland houses are gone, and the interiors plastered over with mud and slime. The stench from the corpses of drowned animals, which fills the air, completes an impression of desolate misery like that of the French devastated regions in the War.

President Coolidge, in refusing to call a special session of Congress for the relief of the flood victims, made much of the fact that credit corporations have been organized in the states most seriously stricken. These, with the backing of the Federal Farm Loan Board, were supposed to set the farmers on their feet again. In fact, as is pointed out by Mr. L. C. Speers in his recent series of articles in the New York Times, these credit corporations have shown themselves to be almost useless. Only twelve applicants for assistance had come forward in Louisiana by July 10, only about one hundred in Mississippi, and the same number in Arkansas. The difficulty is that these corporations will make no loans without ample security; and the farmers who are most urgently in need of aid have no security to offer. Their lands are in many cases already mortgaged, and have also been much reduced in value by the flood's action; their other tangible assets have been destroyed or greatly diminished. It is the custom in the South to borrow from local banks or merchants against the coming crop; but this year the outlook for the crop is so 'dubious that no financial institution would be warranted in lending very much against it. In fact, the local banks are in a situation like that in the corn and wheat belt in 1922; they made loans, before the coming of the floods, to borrowers who probably cannot pay, and the security accepted has now diminished in value.

In the second week in July, of the 600,000 persons rendered homeless by the flood, between 300,- 000 and 400,000 were still receiving rations from the Red Cross. Each family, when it returns to its home, receives three weeks' food supply; but in many, perhaps in a majority, of the cases, they will be obliged to appeal again for assistance after this period is ended. In Arkansas, for example, the Red Cross estimates the destitution at 68 percent; but other authorities in that state declare it is 90 percent. Two hundred thousand families in that state have seen their homes virtually destroyed. The loss may be as high as $100 per capita, an extraordinary figure in a region where the average wealth is so low.

The Red Cross has raised for relief about $16,000,000; its final appeal for funds virtually broke down, presumably because people took it for granted that with the recession of the waters the necessity for assistance would rapidly taper off. With the unexpended balance of this sum, the relief authorities estimate that they can continue at least until November 1. The validity of this estimate, of course, depends upon the amount of relief the organization is called upon to furnish in the interval. If too much optimism has been displayed in regard to the ability of the repatriated farmers to feed themselves this summer, the available funds will be exhausted sooner.

Even if the funds should prove ample, the situation is bad enough. The farmers who borrow for rehabilitation will face the future burdened with a debt which will hamper them for years, in the form of short-term obligations necessitating frequent renewal, and at interest rates which they regard as high. Despite the easy-going willingness of some persons to accept the Red Cross rations as a lucky windfall (amusingly described in a recent issue of the New Republic by H. J. Krier) there is, in fact, a widespread reluctance to become the recipients of charity, which is especially marked among the French-speaking "Cajons" (Acadians) of Louisiana. The difficulty which Mr. Hoover and his aides experienced in persuading them to leave their homes and gather in the camps was in part due to this fact.

Everyone recognizes that the problem of perfecting an adequate system of flood control will require federal action on a vast scale. The more we learn of the conditions in the wake of the disaster, the more certain it appears that the economic rehabilitation of the flooded regions is also likely to require federal aid. In refusing, as he has done, to call a special session of Congress to cope with this problem. President Coolidge has taken upon himself a truly terrible responsibility. We shall be lucky if the assistance, when it does come, is not so late that needless additional misery is suffered because of its tardiness.