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September 28, 2012


My followers know that Roosevelt, his Keynesian policies and his New Deal agencies are particular favorites of mine. I learned early on that he was a pragmatist who didn’t let philosophy get in the way of doing what needed to be done (unlike tea party people and Romney-Ryan, who prefer to let events rule us instead of our ruling events, a laissez faire system designed to maintain and perhaps improve the status quo among their rich and corporate patrons).  

Roosevelt certainly had his opportunities to act when he came into office 1933 in the midst of the Great Depression. I was one week short of 6 years old at the time. Those of us who could afford radios and pay our “light bills” on a rainy day of his second inaugural four years later in January, 1937, in Washington, D.C., heard his reference to one-third of Americans who were “ill-housed, ill-clad, and ill-nourished.” My family could relate to that description, one which we fit perfectly. We met all three tests.

He also promised in this his second inaugural that he would use the nation’s “great wealth of natural resources” to elevate living standards. (Unlike Romney-Ryan, who have promised to elevate the living standards of the already rich and corporate class. Roosevelt would have looked at our current picture differently; he would have pursued policies that would have made the poor richer, an idea which apparently has not occurred to Romney-Ryan and their wealthy backers, who prefer tax and other policies that make the rich richer.)

The weather was atrocious that 20th day of January, 1937, when Roosevelt took the oath of office for his second term. Senator George Norris of Nebraska, who authored the 20th Amendment to the Constitution which moved inaugural day from March 4 to January 20 in the year following an election, joked at the inaugural that the bad weather was his fault. If he had left well enough alone, the weather would likely have been better in March. Little did either he or the president know that this was no ordinary rainy weather. It was part and parcel of a debacle already started that blustery day in January and just what we needed during a soul-killing depression – The Thousand Year Flood.

A book by this name written by David Welky, professor of History, chronicles in well-researched detail just what happened in the Ohio River and lower Mississippi River valleys starting in January, 1937. He recites the hardships of the people who lived in those valleys in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Tennessee and Arkansas, from those who lived along the waterfront to those who lived in backed-up rivers that (normally) were tributaries of the Ohio. He tells of how cities along the Ohio River were inundated (Paducah, Kentucky, was 93% underwater, for instance). He goes on to tell us the stories of the human and property disasters played out in Cincinnati, Louisville, Memphis, and Shawneetown and Cairo in Illinois. It is a picture of ruination. From fears of epidemics of typhoid through thousands of cases of pneumonia and influenza, from the forced labor of refugees to sandbag levees, hunger, looting of stores, dead livestock; from boats and rafts rescuing people from rooftops, from homes, banks, churches, stores and public buildings of every sort – all was mayhem and disorganization bordering on a total breakdown of civil society.

The Red Cross performed admirably, providing food, cots, tents, nurses and medicine for the hundreds of thousands of refugees from cities and farms across the beleaguered region. The Army Corps of Engineers were also prominent in helping divert onrushing waters from inundating cities and towns along the Ohio, though with mixed success. Labor was in such short supply that some of the refugees were forced at gun point to help sand bag and do other labor deemed necessary by local mayors and their policemen. There was no organized plan to look to; all was chaos with overlapping jurisdiction among those who purported to be in charge and their arguments with one another.

 The states and cities along the 981 mile Ohio River had no money to help. There was no national plan. With floating houses, telephone poles, dead livestock and other debris rushing along in a fast current, it was dangerous for steamboats to come up the Ohio to try to rescue refugees, though some did. With death, disease, hunger, hypothermia and politicians and the Red Cross and The Corps arguing about jurisdiction with local mayors (and occasionally state governors), it is surprising to know that we did as well as we did in saving lives and bringing some order out of mayhem and disaster.

Against this background, and without a national plan or appropriated money for such purpose (and with republicans and many conservative Southern Democrats who were opposed to any such national planning or any involvement in flooding matters on grounds of states’ rights), Roosevelt made it national business with his directive to Harry Hopkins, who was the very energetic head of the WPA, to go to the area and pull out all the stops in helping locals survive the water holocaust.

The WPA (and to a lesser extent, the CCC – Civilian Conservation Corps) came into towns and cities along the Ohio and performed superbly. Local officials said that many more would have died but for the heroic work of the WPA who numbered in the thousands and who sandbagged, rescued people (and one cow) from rooftops, and did anything and everything they were directed to do. They had direction. Harry Hopkins came to town and let the local warring officials know that he was in charge of a big new labor force and to take their petty jurisdictional arguments elsewhere; to get out of the way because he had work to do – and his production and that of his WPA workers were prodigious.

The CCC was from an installation in Boonville, Indiana. These were from an encampment there who used to come over to the coal mine pits where we kids were swimming. They would come over in open bedded trucks for a bath after a day’s work. Many were not all that much older than we were, so we often played “turtle tag” with them. I recall that they had bars of soap; we could only afford OK laundry soap at home – none for our swim in “the pit.”

It was Roosevelt-inspired agencies like the WPA and CCC who saved lives and property during this great flood. He was not a victim of a philosophy that says “the government” shouldn’t do anything in times of great stress and strain. He did the necessary, and left the philosophy to right wing politicians who are more interested in enriching their patrons than helping the drowning. Compassionate conservatives? Where money is involved as an alternative to compassion, I have yet to meet one.

Fast forward 10 years – 1947 – I have been to war and have matriculated to Indiana University, and guess what? I noted that several of the beautiful Bedford limestone buildings on campus had an etching on cornerstones that read “Erected by the WPA.” Roosevelt’s good things just keep on coming! Is it any surprise that I favor a “can-do” president over a “won’t do” austere wannabe like Romney? It shouldn’t be. Roosevelt supplied the “demand” that business couldn’t; we should do the same – now. GERALD  E

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  1. William Berlin permalink

    The CCC camp in our town supplemented our town’s economy and provided a fresh choice of mates for several young, unmarried ladies (including high school students). Our family income soared as my mother took in “washings and ironings” for officers from the camp – 50 cents a load to wash, 25 cents per shirt to iron.

    • I don’t remember a CCC camp in Winslow. Guess I was too far away way out there in Arthur, but I do recall playing turtle tag with some of those guys. I thought they were from Boonville. They were bigger than we were, of course, and doggoned near drowned us playing turtle tag there at Gray’s pit, our favorite swimming hole. Cooler here today – I thought you were gone from home and in California. Duh! GES

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