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A group of men await work assignments on the Greenville levee. Tags attached to their collars kept track of inoculations, work assignments, and what plantation they came from. The levee became a work camp, where food and supplies for 50,000 people and thousands of heads of livestock were unloaded for distribution throughout the Delta. Black men were not allowed to leave, they were forced to work without pay. BOOKS Sr THE CULTURE Indescribable Horror, Circa 1927 BY JAMES E. MCWILLIAMS Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America By John M. Barry Simon & Schuster 528 pages, $16. IThe simplest lesson of the New Orleans disaster might be something like this: storms are perfect, but humans are flawed. When Katrina’s surge overwhelmed the levees, tens of thousands of America’s poor, most of them black, lost everything. The President of the United States grimaced with false sincerity and tried to stay on vacation. The Vice President did stay on vacation. The Secretary of State, a black woman from Alabama, shopped for shoes at Saks Fifth Avenue. The Secretary of Defense, a man whose judgment seems permanently fogged, explained that the clean-up was proceeding well. The head of Homeland Security said the homeland was secure and encouraged charitable giving. FEMA’s directorcalled the President during the crisissaid that he knew nothing about refugees languishing in the New Orleans convention center. It was, to be generous, a glaring and almost farcical example of human beings on their absolute worse behavior. Meanwhile, Katrina wreaked perfect havoc: “[T] he water just came in waves, just like a big breaker in the ocean, coming over this land. It was a really frightening thing to see something like that. It just came right over and rolled over.” To put it another way, “The situation is far worse than can possibly be imagined from the outside. It is the greatest disaster to come to this section and we need help from the federal government to prevent the worst kind of suffering.” “FOR GOD’S SAKE SEND US BOATS!” a headline in the TimesPicayune screamed, followed by a story that explained, “It would be impossible to overestimate the distress of the stricken sections of the state. Back from the levees, where the land is flooded by backwaters, people are living on housetops, clinging to trees, and barely existing in circumstances of indescribable horror.” What makes the flawed response to Katrina particularly galling goes beyond the unavoidable suspicion that white stockbrokers wouldn’t have been allowed to rot in the convention center. It’s that storms are predictable events. For a Gulf Coast city built below sea level and surrounded by a lake, an ocean, and the world’s most powerful river, it’s not a question of “if” but “when.” Federal and state authorities knewand have always knownthat the correct answer was “often,” but the levees went neglected and the rescue effort lollygagged. Officials should have known better, or at least known their history better. After all, the storm descriptions in the previous paragraphs were not made in response to Katrina, but to the famous Mississippi flood of 1927. John Barry’s Rising Tide, first published in 1997, vividly recounts this event. As Katrina pummeled New Orleans, Barry’s book shot to #11 on Amazon’s sales list, and Simon & Schuster ordered the publication of 10,000 new copies. While his riveting account doesn’t necessarily show the past presaging the present, it drives home an enduring point: the flaws of our leaders are magnified when the waters rise and the levees strain. Barry reminds us that while nature cannot be controlled, its most lacerating effects can be minimized ifa big ifpublic officials and scientists sacrifice selfinterest to the common good. But as he also reveals, for all the generosity that individual Americans show when their neighbors are in need, public virtue is often missing in action. Barry begins his tale of irresponsi 22 THE TEXAS OBSERVER SEPTEMBER 23, 2005