John Barry Revisits ‘Rising Tide’ 20 Years Later
by Michael Patrick Welch
While locked out of New Orleans after the city filled with water, you would spot, wherever you were stuck—on a Houston city bus, in an Atlanta coffee shop—people reading this thick book: Rising Tide by John Barry. Often, when tapped on the shoulder, the reader turned out to be a fellow refugee, who would explain how stupid they felt for not having read Rising Tide sooner—because you don’t really understand New Orleans until you’ve read Barry’s comprehensive, downright scary masterpiece.
“I am not sure how many lives the book changed,” says the laconic Barry from his twenty-sixth floor office at Tulane’s School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, “but it certainly changed my life.”
Rising Tide, which celebrates its twentieth anniversary this year, recounts late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century engineering struggles to protect the Delta area from the Mississippi River’s wrath. It’s a book about levees: levee politics, levee building, levees as the living, sinking guardians of human lives. The book reentered Amazon.com’s Top Ten during Katrina, eight years after its release, partly because of the way Barry details the heartbreaking 1927 flood, when local politicians and bankers decided to strategically dynamite the river levees to flood St. Bernard, thus avoiding far more expensive damage upriver. Those who’d read Rising Tide before Katrina understood why some Lower Nine Ward residents immediately assumed government conspiracy when the levees broke in 2005.
Though the subject matter of Barry’s various celebrated books differs dramatically—from politics to cancer research to theologian Roger Williams to the influenza virus—each work details the mechanics of power.
“I’ve always been interested in power in different incarnations,” Barry explains. “Rising Tide focuses on people in Louisiana and Mississippi who were in a position to make things happen, who really defined what was going on—all studies of power in different ways.”
But more powerful than them all is the Mississippi River, stretched out long and wide outside Barry’s floor-to-ceiling office window. It’s almost ironic that Barry would be gifted this view so many years after he wrote Rising Tide. “I don’t work for Tulane any more, they just give me this office,” he says with a smile when I inquire about tacked-up newspaper clips from his days coaching Tulane football in the 1970s. His messy office is far less beautiful than its view.
Over the course of four and a half years, Barry wrote Rising Tide in various New Orleans offices. “First I was on Chartres Street, above an antique shop. We had bought something from the dealer and I asked if he knew anything for rent, and he let me use his third floor. He trusted me with a key to come and go. Then I finished the book in what is the Ritz Carlton; Phil Carter was a good friend of mine and he owned the Maison Blanche building. I was the only legal tenant besides Maison Blanche. I’d paid rent on the antique store, but Phil didn’t charge me anything.”
Since 1988, Barry has also kept an office in Washington, DC, to save money on hotel visits during his frequent trips to the city’s archives. Much of Rising Tide was derived from the diaries and letters of the engineers themselves, which helped Barry render some striking detail—like this scene where civil engineer James Eads converted a forty-gallon whiskey barrel into a diving bell so he could descend to the raging river’s bottom to salvage hundreds of tons of valuable lead:
[I]n a current so swift as to require extraordinary measures to sink the bell . . . [t]he sand was drifting like a dense snowstorm at the bottom. . . . At sixty-five feet below the surface I found the bed of the river, for at least three feet in depth [it was] a moving mass and so unstable that, in endeavoring to find a footing on it beneath my bell, my feet penetrated through it until I could feel, although standing erect, the sand rushing past my hands, driven by a current apparently as rapid as that on the surface. I could discover the sand in motion at least two feet below the surface of the bottom, and moving with a velocity diminishing in proportion to its depth.
“That’s the single part of the book that is most quoted to me—but that’s just his words, I didn’t even write that,” Barry chuckles. “The chief of the US Army Corps of Engineers, Andrew Atkinson Humphreys, also had letters in the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, so I spent a lot of time with his personal letters there, too. Eads’s assistant Elmer Corthell, who built the jetties, went to Brown where I went, so there were a lot of papers at Brown. The National Archives has Red Cross archives for the flood itself—and then the Red Cross itself has archives in Virginia.”
If simply reading the book changes one’s perception of local power, racism, and levee protection, one can only imagine how researching and writing the book might haunt its author. “Long before Katrina, honestly, every time I left for DC, part of me would say, ‘I wonder if it’s gonna be here when I get back.’ But then obviously I choose to live here. I still live here, even though I know that the vulnerability increases every minute—not every day, but every minute, on a continuum that’s analog, not digital.”
Having written Rising Tide, Barry had a heightened awareness during Katrina. “I was the first person to say publicly—and may have been the first person to conclude privately—that seventy-two hours after the storm it became pretty clear that something had just happened to the flood walls, and that they should have held that storm on the lake,” says Barry. “My awareness of that is probably why I was on the [levee] board.”
In 2007 he was selected to serve as a member of the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority and the Vice President of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority (East)., often referred to as the Levee Board. However, Barry has never considered himself an expert. “I didn’t want to [join the board] because I had any particular special expertise on flooding. Some of the other people who were applying for it were authors of textbooks on engineering, geologists, very good technical people. But what I had was an ability to do things other people on the board couldn’t, as far as reaching out to local and national media people who knew me. In Congress, I was asked by the Democratic caucus to give a brief talk on Katrina, but then I also knew Republicans very well. I’d known Newt Gingrich since 1984, so we co-authored an op-ed that ran in Time about why it was important to rebuild. And because of the Influenza book—because the same people who handle pandemic emergencies also handle all domestic disasters—I knew people on the Homeland Security Council and [in] the Bush administration, and actually had direct access to people in the White House. That was something I thought might be very valuable to the board. And it was.”
Once on the board, Barry’s plan to sue ninety-seven oil and gas companies for their role in compromising New Orleans’s levee system, however, failed. “The district judge said the levee board didn’t have any standing,” he recalls. “She said only federal government could sue. But the levee board owns the levee! It provides the land!”
Still, Barry believes that, as vice-president of the levee board from 2007 to 2013, he did help oversee a significant improvement in the city’s flood protection system. “The system will now do what’s it’s supposed to do,” he claims. “We were supposed to have three-hundred-year protection before Katrina, and obviously that was not the case. That system failed in front of a storm it was meant to contain. Now it will work and do what it’s supposed to do. The problem is that the flood protection standard is so low.”
Now retired from the levee board, Barry is currently writing about what he said he’d never write about: “Not Katrina, which I also said I’d never write about,” he grins. “I am writing about the lawsuit.”
Reading Rising Tide will help the average Louisiana citizen to understand and hopefully participate in the complex conversation Barry continues to have with the power structure. Still, he downplays his twenty-year-old book’s importance. “I won’t claim that it has changed the city in any way,” he maintains. “I mean, obviously, Katrina changed the city. But to the extent that people do start thinking about the issues in Rising Tide, it’s conceivable that some of the decisions people make, or society makes, will change the direction Louisiana is headed. And I think that has to happen if this place is going to continue to exist.”