Coolidge and the 1927 Mississippi flood

“The Government is not the insurer of its citizens against the hazards of the elements. We shall always have flood and drought, heat and cold, earthquake and wind, lightning and tidal wave, which are all too constant in their afflictions. The Government does not undertake to reimburse citizens for loss and damage incurred under such circumstances. It is chargeable, however, with the rebuilding of public works and the humanitarian duty of relieving its citizens of distress.” (Calvin Coolidge, 1927 Annual Message to Congress)

McGehee, Arkansas, inundated in May 1927

Unusually heavy and extended precipitation as well as other causes, such as deforestation, brought about one of the nation’s worst natural disasters in the spring of 1927 – the great Mississippi Flood. Estimates of casualties and property losses vary, but certainly upwards of 200 people died, perhaps as many as a million and a half lost their homes and total direct and indirect losses may have amounted to as much as $1 billion (or approx. $11 billion in today’s debased currency).

President Coolidge acted quickly, creating a quasi-governmental commission that included cabinet members and was chaired by Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover. The commission was to operate by networking and coordinating the efforts of federal, state, local, private, and nonprofit organizations and by close consultation with the American Red Cross, a congressionally-chartered entity that had been established in 1905 for various purposes, among them relief and preventive efforts in “great national calamities.”

During the three months from April through July, 1927, Hoover wielded enormous administrative and political power as the public face of disaster response, relief, and reconstruction. While Hoover made some glaring errors that foreshadowed his later mismanagement of the nation’s economy and his general resistance to advice, the general consensus is that the commission facilitated the quick and efficient utilization and coordination of governmental and private sector resources.

In the aftermath of the flood (and another disastrous flood affecting New England in November of 1927), the administration came under intense pressure to take preventive steps against future extreme flooding. Coolidge was loath to support a large federal flood program that would endanger his efforts to balance the budget and reduce the national debt. He threw his support behind a $180 million flood control program advocated by Major General Jadwin, the chief of the Army Corps of Engineers, and also emphasized that property owners should contribute one third of the cost. The Senate, however, had different ideas, not only ballooning the anticipated cost to $1.4 billion (remember that the total annual federal budget in those years did not far exceed $3 billion) but also intending these costs to be borne solely by the government.

Coolidge fought the $1.4 billion program and its onerous provisions, such as the creation of a new administrative body that would not be accountable “to anybody or anything” or the loophole that might have left the federal government financially responsible for all flood damage along the lower Mississippi in case federally constructed levees broke. Calling the Senate bill “extortionate,” he lobbied hard to swing the House behind the Jadwin plan, making some concessions regarding federal responsibility for levee construction but remaining adamant that private property owners should share in the costs. He was not pleased with the Jones bill that emerged from the House, calling it no better than the Senate measure.

Making his central points that the bills under consideration would benefit absentee property owners far more than the people actually affected by floods, and that neither he nor the public would condone a measure that constituted a raid on the federal treasury, Coolidge was able to bring some sense to the conference committee. Thus, the bill finally passed by Congress in May of 1928 was not what Coolidge had wanted – but at least the cost had been marked down to $500 million, the Army Corps of Engineers was clearly vested with responsibility for all flood control projects, and a provision was made for local contributions. Having fought the good fight, Coolidge decided to sign the bill, not least because it was the politically feasible thing to do in an election year.

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