Flowing Waters: Calvin Coolidge and Flood Relief

October 12, 2015

By Rushad L. Thomas

Those who’ve seen the footage of the flood conditions in South Carolina are deeply saddened to see mother nature unleash such a tremendous torrent on that beautiful state. The Palmetto State’s governor, Nikki Haley, relaying reports from scientists, announced that these floods were “a thousand year event.” Our hearts go out to the good people of Carolina, and we wish them the very best in their efforts to recover and rebuild.

While the scale of flooding in Carolina can be described as a “thousand year event,” we all know that floods and natural disasters are a part of life, across the world and throughout history. During President Coolidge’s time in government this country faced natural disasters of a similar scale when the Mississippi River overflowed its banks in April 1927. Since the previous fall, heavy rains, followed by floods, had wrought havoc in the Midwest. On April 16, the disaster assumed new proportions when a 1,200-foot stretch of a levee collapsed in southern Illinois. Five days later, the force of the torrent broke another levee downriver at Mounds Landing, Mississippi. The waters swept away hundreds of black laborers working to fortify the river banks. In the days ahead, the disaster would kill hundreds, displace hundreds of thousands, and produce damages totaling in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

President Coolidge swung into action. He created a commission consisting of cabinet members, chaired by Herbert Hoover. This commission was designed to facilitate organs of relief in both the government sector and in civil society, in collaboration with the American Red Cross, which the President chaired back in those days.

Between April and July 1927 Secretary Hoover took the lead as the primary manager of the relief efforts on the Federal level. Most persons involved thought that the commission did a commendable job of bringing together the public and private sectors to help those whose lives and homes had been devastated by the flood.

Despite the success of this public-private partnership, the pressure was on for the Federal Government to do more in the area of disaster relief and to invest in efforts to prevent future events from escalating to such a degree. Coolidge, ever the conscientious budget manager, could not countenance expanding the Federal Government’s role in this area and encroaching upon mandates he saw as the purview of state and local governments. He did, however, voice support for a flood control initiative promoted by the head of the Army Corps of Engineers, Major General Jadwin, with a price tag of $180 million.

The Congress, however, wanted more. Senators proposed a $1.4 billion package, an eye-popping sum at a time when the entire Federal Budget was only just north of $3 billion. Coolidge also disliked the fact that none of the costs of this program would be borne by property owners, a feature of the Jadwin plan he liked. The President referred to the Senate plan as “extortionate,” and he pushed with alacrity to convince the House to adopt the Jadwin approach.

When Congress finally passed its flood legislation it consisted of measured compromises between the President’s position and those of the legislators. The cost had been reduced substantial, to $500 million, responsibility for flood control programs was given over to the Army Corps of Engineers, and local stakeholders would be required to contribute to the efforts. Coolidge put his pen to the bill in May 1928, convinced that it was the best he could get from the Congress.

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