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The John M. Barry Interview

Mr. John M. Barry is the Distinguished Visiting Scholar at the Center for Bioenvironmental Research at Tulane and Xavier universities. He is the author of many acclaimed books, including Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How it Changed America. He recently talked with Jeff Waldrop by telephone on behalf of Swampland.com.


Q: Could you tell us a little about yourself, your background, and what brought you to New Orleans?

Barry: “I grew up in Rhode Island. And although I had a strong connection to the Atlantic Ocean, there was always something about the Mississippi River that fascinated me, because it was such a central feature of America.

Q: “I think you’ve stated in Rising Tide that the Mississippi is the longest river system in the world?”

Barry: “Well, that’s not quite true, if you compare apples to apples, but I think it’s clearly the most important river system in the world—because of the development along it. However, the Amazon is a larger river basin and the Congo is a tiny increment larger. But there’s no comparison in terms of the commercial and industrial development that is fed by these three river systems. Anyway, New Orleans always attracted my interest and I first came down to Mardi Gras while I was in college. I remember feeling I would like it (New Orleans) better without Mardi Gras, so I came back and did like it better. And I still like it better outside of Mardi Gras.”

Q: “Yes, I had a similar take on New Orleans, having grown up in Mississippi. What about some of the other things that intrigued you about the South?”

Barry: “Well, Southern football for one. I remember growing up in the North (in the 1960’s), and probably fifty percent of the coaches I encountered all had a respect for Bear Bryant; maybe not for all his coaching techniques, but for the way his teams competed. For instance, one of his teams in the 1960’s beat a Nebraska team that outweighed their linemen fifty to sixty pound a man.

“Incidentally, I once visited (former Auburn head coach) Pat Dye at the University of Alabama athletic offices, when he was an assistant coach, and seeing a young man come through the office who couldn’t have been more than a hundred and eighty pounds. Granted, he been out of football about a year, but Pat Dye said to me: ‘That guy started at defensive tackle in last year’s Orange Bowl!”

“But the thing that still makes the South unique is race. It’s there, in your face, every day. Have things gotten enormously better, yes! I can remember when I was coaching at Tulane, this was in ’73, and that was the first year that there were black seniors. And I remember the first black football player at LSU, a running back from Virginia named Lora Hinton. I don’t know that he ever played, but I can remember visiting LSU’s spring practice; at least I think that’s an accurate memory.

“I can remember, though, when I first started coming down to New Orleans, there was no interstate highway system, and so when we stopped for gas we would do so in small town service stations. And there would be Klan literature on the shelves. Now growing up in Rhode Island, you did not see Klan literature on the shelves in gas stations! This was soon after the Civil Rights movement, and as I said it was more ‘In your face!’ That’s not to say that other areas of the country have not experienced race problems; for instance, there’s the book Common Ground, on the busing and integration of Boston. And where I grew up, Providence, is only thirty eight miles from Boston. There, in those days, people used to say that an integrated marriage was when an Irish and Italian married.”

Q: “Would you say that our culture has come a long way since those days in terms of racial tolerance?”

Barry: “Clearly!”

Q: Do you view this issue with optimism?”

Barry: “Well, you have to be optimistic. But if you look at it on a day-to-day basis, and what confronts you, it can be pretty depressing. But when you step back and get a little perspective, you realize how much progress has been made. And you sense there is a fiar amount of promise for the future. New Orleans is still one of the most racially divided cities in the county. I know Michal Lomax, for instance, who has been president of Dillard’s and runs the United Negro College fund. And this place is far different than Atlanta. That’s not to say there is no racial divide elsewhere, but it’s particularly acute in New Orleans.”

Q: “What is your interest in politics, and how would you assess that?”

Barry: “Well, I’m the point person now on the levee systems, so I’ve had dealings with the legislature in Baton Rouge. And that’s interesting, to say the least. [laughs]. I’ve also spent tome dealing with Congress in Washington. I spent about twenty years in Washington, where my wife also had a job, and I thought I understood legislative bodies—until I started dealing with the state legislature in Baton Rouge. On the other hand, all state legislatures are unique. I’ve heard a lot of interesting stories about the Texas legislature. I was pretty good friends with Jim Wright, in Washington, and every morning he and his staff would tell stories about their experiences in the Texas legislature, which were true and hilarious; and also pretty scary!”

Q: “So how do you see Southern politics evolving; or, do you?”

Barry; “To quote Faulkner: ‘The past is never over; it isn’t even the past! I think the thing that makes New Orleans unique is that it has the highest percentage of its population who were born here, still living here, of any metropolitan area in the country. And I think that translates into the fact that some ancient feuds continue to persist. Certainly there is a significant transient population in this city, like all large cities. But since Katrina, dramatically more so: both the exodus and the influx. We lost somewhere close to a third of our population, according to available statistics; that’s the exodus. But on the influx side, we have supposedly gained a number of young people, in their twenties and thirties. It’s not Prague, and it will never be Prague, but there is hope that it can be made over. There’s a very high proportion of new activity, efforts to make over the city into something new and different.”

Q: “So some of the in-bred characteristics might be waning?”

Barry: “Oh, it would have to. There’s not enough local capital, either financial or intellectual, to remake the city on its own.”

Q: “You’re probably familiar with George Washington Cable, a New Orleans author who in the post-Civil War era wrote stories that subversively show how racism can be a deadening force.”

Barry: “There aren’t too many places where race is measured to the sixteenth. Certainly, there are numerous cultures where relative lightness of skin is an important factor, but I think New Orleans is unique with its Octoroon Ballroom society. African Americans had their own versions of the Mardi Gras krewes, which were as exclusive as the white versions were. So it wasn’t only the white community that didn’t welcome outsiders, but the black community, too.

“I can remember a friend who moved here (to New Orleans), a distinguished professor who held a Ph.D. No one would invite him to their home, and so with the established power structure, of the white and black communities, he was excluded from both of them because he wasn’t from here.

“I’ve even heard of this type experience in the St. Bernard Parish, by no means an elite area—it’s called ‘down in the parish,’ after all. But one man who had lived there for twenty seven years said he was still considered an outsider.

“So, that in-grown nature of New Orleans is also part of the charm as well; it doesn’t change. Somehow, the city, more than a hundred years ago, came up with a strange slogan: ‘the city that care forgot.’ I’m not quite sure about that. The decay that nobody does anything about!(laughs) I’m not sure that it’s a slogan that’s in use today, but it actually capture something of, if you want to call it the charm of the city. There a book called Decadence and Elegance or Elegance and Decadence, and that pretty much sums it up, I think.

This kind of insider thought is not entirely unique, though. There’s the Boston Brahmins, the 100 of New York, or 500, and I’m told that there’s something of this elitism in Charleston, SC. But in these other cities that element is more behind the scenes; there’s more of a swirl of activity; it seems more evident here. That’s largely because of Mardi Gras: People think that Mardi Gras is parades in the streets; that’s not what Mardi Gras is. It’s a group of exclusive krewes, which are built around exclusive debutante balls, run by men. It takes enormous amounts of time—to get your costumes and put together parades. But wealthy people who move into this city, who might consider themselves elite, find it hard or impossible to get into the exclusive carnival krewes. And that’s one of the things that has held the city back.”

Q: “Do you attribute this social element to New Orleans being eclipsed in population by many other cities in the South in terms of population, as recently as the 1980 census?”

Barry: “It never really had anything other than the port, oil and tourism. And the oil industry started to depart in the early ‘80’s and, frankly, I think that the social system and krewes not being welcoming to oil executives, is part of the reason that Houston came to be what it is. And the off-shore industry largely moved out of New Orleans. I think New Orleans could have been a bigger center had it been more welcoming. It still has some oil industry, but far less than fifteen or twenty years ago, and since Katrina, even much less.

“So you have tourism, but it’s not an upscale economy. It doesn’t support much in the way that, you know, how much do maids in hotels and waiters in restaurants make? And while the port is important, it’s not exactly a high tech center. Now back in the period I wrote about (Rising Tide), New Orleans was the southern financial center, but banking laws changed, and things began to shift away from the city in the ‘30’s and 40’s.

“This all had to do with the social structure. It was an in-grown city, not welcoming to newcomers or new ideas. They did have an economy capable of supporting the elites, but there just didn’t seem to be a reason to push a manufacturing sector, or more recently a high tech center. Obviously there has always been some here who tried to push a technology base, and there is a little, but nothing like Atlanta. There is a recent effort to create a bio-medical research center and use that as a base upon which to rebuild the economy. And I hope that succeeds, and it may well succeed, but they’re in competition with cities like Atlanta and Emory genetic research center; Rockville, Maryland, around NIH; Boston around Harvard and MIT; California around San Francisco and Los Angelos, both.

“But I think until you do some other things first, it’s hard to, say, convince a thirty-eight year old scientist to come to New Orleans instead of, say Montgomery County, Maryland where his kids can go to some of the best public schools in the United States.

“What I don’t think has been utilized is the Mississippi River, which could give a competitive advantage and a comparative advantage in trying to build something around. And I’m not talking about the port exclusively. Boone Pickens has said that water is the oil of the twenty-first century. There are enormous shortages of water world wide: the whole question of estuaries, rising sea levels, fresh water agriculture. It’s an area that I think can be explored. There was an effort I was involved in trying to create some industry dedicated to that, but frankly it’s been put on the back-burner because not enough people are trying to make it happen. Everybody, including myself, was busy. What we were trying to do was build a scientific research center dedicated to water issues. Sort of like an oceanographic center, a Wood’s Hole.

When we first started talking about this some ten years, I remember one financial planner who shared my vision. As you probably know, New Orleans greatest asset is its role as a convention center.

Q: So, you must see this oceanographic enter as potentially a way to reinvigorate the New Orleans economy?

JB: “Yeah” [laughs] “if anybody ever starts doing something about it. At one point Tulane was playing a very significant leadership role on it, but Katrina came along and got hit pretty hard. It’s an under endowed university. They lost forty percent of the freshman incoming class, although that has recovered to what it was pre Katrina. But they were hand-to-mouth and the resources weren’t there for new projects.

Q: “Let’s shift now to another of your passions—sports. How do you see sport in terms of the culture of the South, and is it unique in this sense?”

JB: “Well, as they say of football, it’s religion here, which is not to say people elsewhere don’t take it seriously. For example, Lloyd Carr, who just retired as the coach of Michigan, where they’ve sold out every game for almost forty years, and that means over 110,000 people every game. I remember saying to him once that even though you have that many people in your stadium, it’s not like going to Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge. And he laughed and said that he and his staff had been talking about it just that day, and that ‘we don’t want it to be like that.’

“I think people down here should get their priorities straight. It’s not a religion, nor should it be a religion. But do people go nuts here? Yeah, of course they do. I eat breakfast a couple times a week on Serio’s (Mike Serio’s) on St. Charles St., and he’s got a life-size plastic tiger as you walk into the door. Of course, he knows the coaches, goes to all the games. I can remember being in Tiger Stadium for the first time when I was coaching at Tulane, and coming from the North, I can tell you it’s different. You know I’ve been to several Michigan games, including and Ohio State Michigan game, and I can tell you: there is a different level of intensity in the South; there’s no doubt about it.

Q: “What would attribute that to?”

JB: “Blood!”

Q: “Blood? As in passion?”

JB: “And believe me—make no mistake— people in Michigan care about football! I haven’t been to an Alabama game, but I have been to a Florida game, and I would say that LSU is a notch above Florida.

Q: “Well, I’ve been to an Alabama game, as well as to all places in the SEC and I can say that Alabama comes pretty close to the frenzied atmosphere. I used to go as a little boy to Tuscaloosa, and at big games I can remember almost being afraid: Like I was in the middle of a war!”

JB: “Well, let’s switch topics to fear. When I was researching Rising Tide, and recruiting for Tulane in the early ‘70’s, I can remember being on dark roads in Mississippi at night and feeling echoes of fear that even as an outsider I didn’t feel in other parts of the country. I certainly don’t feel that way anymore, perhaps because I know it better, but I think that’s different about the South. You know, certainly the level of violence is probably higher in the South than it is elsewhere in the country. I’m sure there are statistics on that, and hopefully they wouldn’t disprove me, but it’s certainly my impression. Ii know from my research on Rising Tide that during the period of that book, that Mississippi had one of the highest murder rates, and the Delta had the highest in terms of areas.

“You’re probably familiar with the book by WJ Cash, The Mind of the South?”

Q: “Yes, very much. I’m always struck by the coincidence that it and Will Percy’s Lanterns on the Levee came out in the same year.”

JB: “I know, and that they were both dead within several months.”

Q: “So, would you talk a little about your connections to Friends of New Orleans?”

JB: “Well my webpage has two op-ed pieces that I submitted on behalf of Friends, and these have appeared in most major newspapers across the nation. I titled them What You Don’t Know About Katrina and “What You Still Don’t Know About Katrina.” But I’ve yet to have anyone accept them with that title.

There is information in those articles, the point of which is that the New Orleans area is not naturally vulnerable to hurricanes. But it’s become vulnerable because of the loss of 2100 square miles of coastal land, an area larger than the state of Delaware. An dif you put such a land mass between New Orleans and the ocean, New Orleans won’t need any levees. But you take that buffer away and all of a sudden it’s very vulnerable.

The reason we’ve lost that land is actually for benefits that have accrued to the rest of the United States. But for a variety of reasons that land has been melting away. I’ll give you one example. The rive now has a third of the sediment it used to, and half of all that lost sediment is stuck in dams in the Dakotas. Those dams were completed in 1963 to provide electricity, irrigation and flood protection for the Dakotas and Nebraska, and yet they directly impact the Louisiana and, to a lesser extent, the Mississippi Gulf Coast. And there were barrier islands that used to give protection to areas of the Mississippi coast that are no longer there, and they’re call ‘barrier’ for a reason.

“So, one of the things I’ve been doing is campaigning around the country to get people to see the geological forces at work. So if you understand how dams in North Dakota affect the Mississippi River and New Orleans, then you can understand why the federal government should have a stake in taking care of that area in terms of flood and hurricand prevention. So that’s the extent of my involvement with Friends of New Orleans: help educate the public on soil erosion. But it won’t be inexpensive! I’m on the Levee Board and the State’s Coastal Restoration and Protection Authority. And there will be hundred of millions of dollars coming into that in the future years. So, since I’ve been involved in all these other things I’ve gone fairly inactive with Friends of New Orleans.

Q: “So you first came to Tulane as an assistant football coach and now you’re a distinguished visiting scholar all these years later?”

JB: “I coached on the ’73 team that beat an Orange Bowl bound LSU team. It was the first time Tulane had beaten LSU since 1948. We played Notre Dame, Miami, seven SEC or ACC teams. We were ranked as high as 11th at one time that season: a serious schedule. So I will fight over Tulane football; I’m nuts about football, too! [laughs]
I still have on my wall a laminated newspaper clipping from the day after we beat LSU. So I’m undefeated against LSU! But my reconnection to Tulane came in ’98 when I became Distinguished Visiting Professor.

“But anyway, feel free to call me back if you need to get more information.”

Q: “It’s been a pleasure, and thank-you for your time, Mr. Barry.”

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