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InterviewsJohn M. Barry

Great Projects: The Building of America
John M. Barry

Interview with John M. Barry, author of Rising Tide, for "A Tale of Two Rivers"

Note: This transcript is from a videotaped interview for the "A Tale of Two Rivers" segment of "Great Projects." It has been edited lightly for readability.

John Barry (JB): Well, there was a flood in 1850 and, to give you a sense of comparison, a levee a few miles upriver from New Orleans was 1.8 feet high. By 1922, the same levee, to hold a lesser flood, had to be 20 feet high. In Morganza, Louisiana, there was a levee that held the flood of 1850 seven-and-half feet high. In 1922, again, a lesser flood, the same levee had to be 38 feet high. And the same increase in the levee heights was true up and down the river. Obviously, if a river can't spread out, it's going to rise up. That's exactly what it did and that, of course, completely contradicted the levees-only theory in policy, but the Corps of Engineers was not listening.

Interviewer (INT): Be more specific in how it contradicted the policy.

JB: Well, according the levees-only theory which was based on a 17th century Italian engineer named Gugiel Menee's observations and hypotheses, you wanted actually to increase the water in the river, because the more water in the river, the higher the slope and, therefore, the faster the current is going to move, which is true. And the faster the current was going to move, then the more it was going to scour out the bottom of the river, which is also true. The problem is, it's not going to increase the scour enough to accommodate the extraordinary enormous increase in water, really a geometric progression between low water and a great flood. So, you know, the Corps of Engineers kept sticking to this hypothesis despite the fact that every scientific observation contradicted it. So you had a disaster that was waiting to happen.

INT: What kind of a guy was Edgar Jadwin?

JB: Jadwin was arrogant, very military, which is hardly surprising, considering he was a general, didn't like to be contradicted, and thought he knew all the answers. By the same token, he knew almost nothing about the Mississippi River, which is odd, because I believe he spent some time in New Orleans as district engineer. And in testimony to Congress, the material that the Corps of Engineers handed out actually stated that in a natural state without any levees whatsoever, the Mississippi River did not flood the Yazoo Mississippi Delta. Now this was land that the river had actually made by depositing sediment. And when a congressman from the delta asked Jadwin about that, Jadwin deferred to the information he had handed to him. I mean it was really extraordinary.

And he also was responsive. As you know, he was in the military hierarchy. He had directives from the White House to keep the cost down. And he was insistent upon that. I think that affected estimates -- this is speculation on my part, but I believe it affected estimates on how much water was in the river during the '27 flood, 'cause, obviously, the more water, the more expensive it is to take care of it. And the Corps of Engineers came up with a very low estimate, much lower than civilian engineers who measured the same things. And I think that was all part of that military hierarchy. When the Mississippi River Commission wanted to propose its own plan to Congress, they actually reported to him. And he refused to forward their plan to Congress because it was different from his plan; Congress did get it through the back door, you know, handed to them unofficially, and after they demanded it, then Jadwin agreed to hand over that plan as well.

INT: What was Jadwin's position on levees-only?

JB: You know, he was not an expert on the Mississippi River. He inherited the levees-only policy. Even after the dynamiting of the levee below New Orleans, which, to all intensive purposes, exploded the levees-only theory as well, but even after that, for a few weeks he still insisted the levees-only theory was valid. But, you know, that was basically an institutional thing. I don't personally think that that was a deeply held belief that he had.

INT: Was he toeing the party line or ...

JB: Well, the Corps of Engineers had been for the levees-only policy for 40 years, if not longer, and he was the head of the Corps of Engineers. So he was not about to change that policy.

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