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.

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