You can’t read anything about the impending Mississippi River flood without writers mentioning the 1927 flood, considered the granddaddy of them all.
John Barry captured the essence of the monstrous flooding in “Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America.” It is considered the definitive work on the flood and its causes and aftermath.
Just like those of us today, American Press readers in 1927 followed the flood’s developments in daily reports compiled by The Associated Press.
New Orleans was drenched with rainfall for the first four months of 1927 and over 14 inches fell on the night of April 15, which broke all records for the previous 56 years, the AP reported. Water in some sections of the city reached a depth of six feet.
“Virtually every section of the city, except certain high portions of the French Quarter and certain peaks in the business and uptown sections of the city, were under water at some time during the night,” the story said.
Hurricane Katrina in 2005 revived memories of the 1927 flood and some of those same areas were spared from that storm’s flooding.
Missouri hit first
The first break in the main levee of the Mississippi River in 1927 occurred near Doreno, Mo., and flooded land for 40 miles.
“The swollen Mississippi, a mad alluvial monster, on its greatest flood rampage of history, beat mercilessly today against man-made barriers of the lower valley as the impounded waters tore their way to the sea, ever widening the path of death, destruction and desolation,” The AP said.
A later report said the first effects of the flooding were felt in the New Orleans area by April 21. Sentries patrolled the levees in order to keep officials posted.
Memphis is already experiencing flooding this year, and it bore the brunt of the early 1927 onslaught.
“Death, famine, pestilence and war between man and the elements rode the ever-increasing tide of the father of waters gulfward today in the greatest flood in the history of the Mississippi Valley,” an AP report said.
Arkansas, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee and Louisiana were all involved in efforts to deal with the fast-moving waters. Thousands driven from their homes were without food, clothing and shelter, and hundreds of others perished.
The official death toll from the 1927 floods was 246 in seven states, but it was believed that thousands of others lost their lives.
One news report said, “Their homes engulfed by the raging waters, thousands of refugees were in the beleaguered cities or towns clinging perilously to house tops, trees, small knolls and levee tops.”
President Calvin Coolidge issued a proclamation calling for aid for the flood’s victims. He said government agencies would help but the burden of caring rested on the American Red Cross, the agency designated by the government to provide disaster relief.
Coolidge named Herbert Hoover, his secretary of commerce, to be his personal representative in the flood areas. Hoover toured the hard-hit communities along the river and his relief effort helped catapult him into the presidency.
Louisiana Gov. Oramel H. Simpson sought permission to cut the Mississippi River levee below New Orleans in order to save the city from serious flooding. He wanted to make the break in St. Bernard Parish.
Simpson got the authority he wanted. The AP said dynamite was used on the east bank of the river 15 miles below New Orleans, but a call went out for an additional two tons of dynamite for more blasting.
The governor’s decision created a controversy that lingers in the affected areas even today.
A U.S. Army Corps of Engineers official estimated that about 10,000 of the 15,000 square miles of rich farm lands in Louisiana were eventually flooded. That involved 6.4 million acres that formed a lake more than 225 miles long and ranging from 50 to 100 miles in width.
Agriculture officials are afraid the opening of more flood gates during the present flood threat will cause the same problem today.
They know flooding will destroy cotton, soybean, rice, sugarcane and other crops.
A special session of the Legislature was convened Sept. 6, 1927, in order to give aid to stricken farmers and parishes, to make reparations for the flood losses in Plaquemines and St. Bernard parishes where the levee was dynamited and to help New Orleans with its drainage system.
Governor fires back
News reports always come under criticism during any major disaster, and 1927 was no exception.
Gov. Simpson took issue with Chicago Daily News reports about the aftermath of the flooding. Here is what he said in a wire to the newspaper:
“Reference in these articles to rampant crime and vice, starvation, ‘mothers dry-breasted and brokenhearted,’ ‘frantic fathers stealing from each other,’ ‘women selling themselves for a crust of bread,’ ‘croppers murdering their landlords,’ and withal, the people indifferent to the general distress, topped by alleged rotten political activity, are so far from a picture of actual conditions that they can only be accounted for as a product of a delirious mind, or one bent on evil,’ ” the telegram said.
Disasters are nothing new for Louisiana, and that has given residents an edge when it comes to preparing for emergencies like the impending flood. However, the final outcome will be largely determined by how well the levees hold up, and that is out of man’s control until the onslaught is over.
Jim Beam, the retired editor of the Lake Charles American Press, has covered people and politics for more than five decades. Contact him at 494-4025 or [email protected].