The Floods

Dorothy Thompson

The Cincinnati Enquirer/March 24, 1936

There is something grandiose and awe-inspiring in natural catastrophes. They reestablish a sense of proportion. They remind man, the only paranoiac amongst the animals, that he lives dangerously and is not yet lord over all of nature. At the same time, and for brief moments, they release the heroism and the sacrificial spirit of wars, without the hatred and bad conscience with which war cankers the soul. They wipe out, for a moment, class lines and race lines; they shift ownership of property; they raise rich men’s houses and slums, and all without creating the antagonism of economic warfare. The banker on the rooftop, wigwagging for a rescuer, asks nothing better than to be in the same boat—any old boat—with the relief worker. When the Mississippi rose a few years ago, and broke the levees, “red necks” who in more fortunate times enjoyed the fiesta of lynchings, swam out to rescue stranded black men. Water, fire, earthquake—these things do not divide men. They bring them together.

In such natural catastrophes men, for the most part, show their noblest, and most decent human qualities. There are, of course, exceptions. In Hartford the police had to take sharp measures against looters. But for every one who uses a catastrophe for his own gain, there are a hundred who show exceptional courage, endurance, and generosity. Men also display their genius. No modern civilization has been permanently wrecked by forces of nature. The streams swell into torrents, the torrents rush into oceans, the great waves of water rise and break the confines built against them; they descend greedily, inexorably upon fields, factories, and cities. Crops are grounded, factory chimneys toppled into the tide, mortgages are wiped out. Epidemics flourish.

But when the flood subsides and the water recedes, physicians mobilize against the plagues; farmers go out again with plows and hoes; bricklayers and carpenters rebuild broken walls, new homes rise on the wrecks of old ones. Neither nation nor city perishes.

Indeed, the catastrophe is too soon forgotten, Were men’s memories longer they would prepare against its recurrence.

It is scandalous that in this country of builders and engineers we have not controlled flood water. The reason is not lack of knowledge or power. It is only the perversity of human nature. For no gigantic public works such as these can be undertaken without stepping on somebody’s toes. The same difficulty attends slum clearance. Everywhere some special interest has to be sacrificed for the general good. Billions have been spent in the last two years, but not on the great works vitally needed. Why not? For two reasons: Such works take long-range planning. This country greatly needs a permanent body of engineers, as divorced from politics as is the War College, insured in their positions by long appointments at adequate salaries, who will look ahead, and when there is unemployment and it is advisable for government to spend, will present specific plans for real achievement. The other reason is that raking leaves or its equivalent may not do much good, but neither does it encounter intrenched interests. Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote in her last book a cycle of sonnets called “Epitaph For the Race of Man.” One of the most eloquent of living poets, she has never written more movingly. Man, that “piece of work” of Hamlet, “noble in reason and infinite in faculty,” is a fossilized skull in the world which she foresees, the earth inherited by strange gods all limb and muscle but devoid of brow. What has destroyed man? In sonnet after sonnet she describes the griefs which have overtaken him. Was it flood that encompassed his end? She writes:

“The broken dyke, the levee washed away,

The good fields flooded and the cattle drowned,

Estranged and treacherous all the faithful ground.

And nothing left but floating disarray

Of tree and home uprooted

was this the day

Man dropped upon his shadow 

without a sound,

And died, having labored well

and having found

His burden heavier than a quilt of clay?

No, no. I saw him when the sun had set

In water, leaning on his faithful oar.

Above his garden, faintly glimmering, yet

There bulked the plow, there

washed the updrifted weeds

And scull across his roof, and

make for shore,

With twisted face, and pocket

full of seeds.”

No, it was not flood. Short as his memory is, man after every great catastrophe builds anew and somewhat better against the wrathful gods. Some day the newly awakened realization that even the earth is not permanent unless one takes care of it will force us to control our floods. Even the Mississippi will be conquered. That demon stream which, on the one hand, created from its alluvial deposits the richest land on earth, and on the other spreads a miasma of yellow fever and malaria—that river which four or five times in a generation breaks its levees will one day be shackled, and probably in our generation. Already scientists have routed its yellow fever; they will deal finally with malaria. The army engineers will canalize and divert the water, accelerate its course, and spill it more rapidly and safely into the gulf.

But before they are allowed to do so the politicians will quarrel on behalf of their clients over the price which landowners are to be paid for the land that must be sacrificed for their own salvation. They will haggle like merchants in a moslem bazaar. They are doing so already in Washington Senate Committee, turning cold ears to the army’s proposal that no more shall be paid than three times the assessed value of the land. And after the work is finished, and the tamed river testifies forever to man’s genius, white men along its banks will still not know how to live with black men: plantation owners will still close tight minds to the woes of share-croppers; on the river’s rich delta most people will still live beast-like in hovels and know no way to help themselves except to fight each other. When the waters subside Pittsburgh children’s lungs will still be blackened by uncontrolled coal smoke; Braddock and Homestead, those ghoulish cities, will still stand.

There will always be pity for those whom floods pursue, and callousness, in the long run, for the victims of misfortunes man makes for himself. Yet only mankind can destroy mankind. Floods will not be man’s mortal fate.

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