The word levee comes from the French verb lever, “to raise”, and was first used in New Orleans shortly after its foundation. As humanity’s battle with water continues, millions depend on them. Nowhere is this truer than the New Orleans region, where battling nature is second nature. Unfortunately, Louisiana levees in 1927 faced an atypical enemy; humanity.
1920 New Orleans played a major role in terms of commerce, and the recent oil boom helped it gain traction. Outside the New Orleans corporation limit, Louisiana quickly became rural. Lower lying areas of St. Bernard Parish and Plaquemines had a respective population of over 15,000. Despite its low population, the parishes were a necessary provider to New Orleans. Upriver, the parish was a farming community, and Old Arabi had unregulated slaughterhouses, mini-casinos, and even a brothel. Downriver, oystermen, trawlers, and other fishermen enabled New Orleans’ cheap seafood addiction, as it does today. Trapping was also a major occupation. St. Bernard Parish produced more fur than any other parish/county in the United States, fueling Roaring Twenties fashion. This trapping was mostly done by the Isleños, descendents of Canary Islanders coerced to migrate in the late 1700s during Spanish rule.
St. Bernard Parish was inhabited by other groups as well: Italians/Sicilians, French, Anglos, and a significant population of African-Americans. Illegal bootlegging was also a big business in the parish, made easy due to the intricate waterways, which only locals could navigate. So much so, Al Capone even paid the parish a visit at one point. These profitable industries led to big players in the parish. Judge L.A. Meraux, Manuel Molero (who barely spoke English), and the upcoming Leander Perez essentially ruled the parish.
The story of the government dynamiting the levees really starts five years prior to the calamity. In 1922, the Mississippi River rose to unprecedented levels. New Orleans, with its then population of over 400,000 (more than present day), feared as they watched the river continually increase. Isaac Cline, chief of the U.S. Weather Bureau, predicted a “record stage of 22.6 feet at Carrollton.” New Orleans embraced for the worse.
Twelve miles below New Orleans stood the town of Poydras in St. Bernard Parish. The Mississippi River took a sharp turn in Poydras after running almost straight about twelve miles. The pressure of the river’s turn was too much for the levees in Poydras and they collapsed. Fortunately, no one was hurt, as most residents owned pirogues and other boats they could easily mount. Nonetheless, the lower part of the parish was inundated. The remnants of this breach can be seen in a deep “blue hole”, or a body of water formed into a crater from intense surging floodwaters. Meanwhile, New Orleanians watched as the river fell. This phenomenon was noted.
Fast forward five years. The Mississippi River is rising at a rate far surpassing the 1922 levels. Levees across the country are breaking and flooding is rampant. Twenty thousand men started working on improving the levees between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. The Times-Picayune claimed over 6,000,000 sandbags were on the way to ensure safety. This did not reassure, and again, New Orleans panicked. On April 19th, politicians, business owners, bankers, and other elites met at the grandiose City Hall to discuss how to increase preparations. No representatives from St. Bernard or Plaquemines Parish were invited. Rumors of blowing up the levees in Poydras around the spot of the 1922 crevasse were confirmed here.
It did not take long for those rumors to trickle into St. Bernard Parish. The parish went on high alert. The parish just underwent a literal war between factions, the Trappers’ War, but now was ready to unite. Young men were asked to patrol the levees and shoot anyone approaching suspiciously. Over 500 armed men went into action, a significant portion of the parish population. Warnings spread throughout the city not to approach the levees. Regrettably, a flatboat approached the Poydras levee and was quickly bombarded with bullets. One man was murdered, and two others wounded. No New Orleans paper mentioned the murder, but the New York Times picked it up, although they dismissed it since “violence there was common anyway.”
The New Orleans elites were obstructed in their goal to dynamite the levees by Governor Oramel H. Simpson. Simpson was going to face reelection soon and blowing up levees and ruining the livelihoods of thousands would not go over well. However, not making the decision and letting New Orleans flood would go over even worse. Simpson was visited by Manuel Molero, and Molero befriended him. Molero’s plea not to drown the towns resonated with Simpson. Simpson was also visited by all the elites from New Orleans in order to convince him otherwise, but he would not budge. However, as they persisted and warned of New Orleans’ pending doom, and the potential consequences for his reelection, his attitude started to shift.
Simpson consulted the experts. Cline, the renowned meteorologist, claimed that the levees would break upstate and would not pose a threat to New Orleans. Prominent engineer James Kemper agreed. A memo to Simpson from the Mississippi River Commission claimed “a break is anticipated somewhere in Louisiana between Vicksburg and Natchez… [This] probably would send part of the water down the Atchafalaya Outlet and thereby relieve the situation at New Orleans.” However, it also mentioned that if, by chance, said break did not occur, we should worry about the “fate of New Orleans.” The memo helped Simpson finally change in favor of the elites. If the River Commission is claiming this is even a possibly, despite however remote, Simpson needed to act.
He wanted the levees blown, but decided to consult more engineers. One engineer proposed that dynamiting the levees was unnecessary and “simply ridiculous” because New Orleans was not in danger. His opinion was not presented to Simpson. Simpson called a meeting to further discuss the issue. At the meeting, the New Orleans elites were in charge, and they flexed their muscles. The capital was Baton Rouge, but the real power was in New Orleans. Simpson found himself consistently told what he “must” do. Eventually, everyone, including Simpson, agreed and signed a pledge. Of the fifty-seven men who signed the pledge, none were engineers and only six were public officials. They created a $150,000 fund to compensate the victims; each victim roughly receiving $20. Adjusted for inflation, that’s $267.77 today.
Cline was enraged as news spread. He started issuing “Flood Bulletins” and sending them to the press. The press did not report on them. When he consulted the reporters, they all claimed they were writing the stories, but were not getting published. The business elite influenced the press, and this information was withheld to support their narrative.
Meanwhile, lower St. Bernard Parish had a meeting of its own. Records indicate over 600 people attended. More probably would have attended had they not been patrolling the levees. One man started by shouting, “Where do they get the authority to drown us out, to deprive us of our homes and our living? We had enough of it in 1922. We won’t stand for it! We should die fighting for our rights!” Thunderous applause. Judge Meraux quieted the crowd and read a statement from the National Guard, “‘If it is necessary to cut the levee at Poydras, the cut will be made by a corps of engineers backed by the whole state militia, or even U.S. soldiers, and we will brook no interference whatsoever from the citizens of these parishes.’” The National Guard was well aware of the stubbornness of St. Bernard Parish. The angry parishioners realized their armed struggle was futile.
If guns won’t work, maybe words will. Leander Perez and Judge Meraux formed committees to change the already decided decision. Perez and Meraux met with the bankers and the governor, but they would not change their mind. The only thing they budged on was the amount pledged. They increased it from $150,000 to $2 million. Molero went to Jackson Barracks to convince the National Guard not to follow through. He pleaded but to no avail. He returned to Delacroix Island and after a few hours, managed to convince the Isleños and their allies to urge peace. This was not the Trappers’ War, this was the U.S. Army. Fighting meant certain death.
Talks of retaliation toward the business elite simmered. The business community misinterpreted the threats and hired over 300 mercenaries to patrol the New Orleans levees. However, the parishioners meant something different. Dozens of armed men poured into New Orleans to find the homes of bankers. They found them, broke in, and held them at gunpoint. They threatened the bankers to keep their compensation promises.
On Thursday, April 28th, Hebert Hoover, who earlier was appointed chairman of all the relief services by President Calvin Coolidge, rode down the river to examine the site for dynamiting. A man on the levees shot at Hoover, narrowly missing him, and ran. Hoover picked his spot in Caernarvon, only three-quarters of a mile below the Poydras crevasse from 1922, right before Plaquemines Parish.
Over 10,000 residents evacuated the area toward New Orleans. Lyle Saxon, Times-Picayune reporter at the time and author of Father Mississippi: The Story of the Great Flood of 1927, described the exodus, “While their parents loaded the mattresses and tables on wagons, the children gathered their dolls and their pet kittens into their arms and looked back at their homes. There was not much time for sentimentalizing or leave-taking.” In 1927, most of the residents did not own cars. He continues, “A curious babble of tongues, English, French, Spanish, and the soft Cajun patois, rose with the hoof-beats of the long caravan.” They were immediately patronized as they entered subpar shelters. The amenities promised were absent. Hundreds drove in to the St Bernard Parish to see the explosions. Roads were jammed both ways with cars entering and wagons leaving. Planes flew over and the wealthy crowded the river with their yachts. Press from Washington to New York and all over the country were given a pass to witness and report, except for reporters for the St. Bernard Voice. It was a national spectacle.
At 2:17pm, April 29th, 1927, the first explosion went off and shook the land. Overall, 39 tons of dynamite would be used, creating “a flow of 250,000 cubic feet of water per second.” To put that in perspective and to demonstrate just how quick the water poured in, Niagara Falls averages less than four million cubic feet of water per second. Judge Meraux talked with reporters at the event and said, “Gentlemen, you have seen today the public execution of this parish.” The next day, levees broke on the west bank upriver and flooded through the Atchafalaya Basin to the Gulf, relieving any threat to New Orleans. Cline, Kemp, and others were right. New Orleans was not in danger, and the explosions were unnecessary.
The east bank of Plaquemines Parish and most of St. Bernard Parish up to Arabi flooded. The flood devastated buildings and smashed almost everything in its path. Crops were decimated and animals drowned. The area became a bay for the river, a mere extension of it. The poorest of the poor became even more disenfranchised. Trappers did not wait for the waters to subside to return as they needed to save the muskrat population in order to retain their livelihood. Conservationists and trappers worked together to save thousands. The muskrats welcomed their rescuers. Others arrived on boats in an attempt to halt the ongoing damage any way possible. Most victims received little to no reparations.
Overall, the Great Mississippi River Flood of 1927 shook America to its core. There was no other river flood as destructive. The flood cost over $400 million in damages and directly killed 246 people. It changed how the federal government operated in addressing levees and flood issues. It led to the creation of the Flood Control Act of 1928, and gave the Army Corps of Engineers more authority to control levee systems. The flood had political ramifications as well. Hebert Hoover was elected president a year later, partially due to his handling of the floods. Governor Simpson lost his reelection to Huey P. Long. St. Bernard and Plaquemines Parish voted for Long almost unanimously. His “Share our Wealth” program and attack of the New Orleans elites pleased them. The flood also expedited the migration process of African-Americans north. This was also a turning point for the Republican Party. Many blacks starting leaving the Republican Party for the first time since Lincoln because they were upset with the way Coolidge handled the flood and how Hoover’s promises to them turned empty handed once he became president.
The memory of this event is seared in the memories of the parishioners. Almost every survivor from Hurricane Betsy in ‘65 will passionately tell you the government blew up the levees to save parts of New Orleans. My grandfather will tell you he heard the explosion that sent his family to his attic to axe his way out. I’ve heard people say the same about Katrina. I have not found any evidence of these claims, but it does make one wonder, especially in regards to Betsy.
For the people of St. Bernard and Plaquemines Parish, the 1927 flood speaks different volumes. Oral stories of the event are still passed down. It demonstrates how one class is subservient to another and how human worth is subjective once it interferes with the profits of a few. It also demonstrates how a torn community can come together to fight a common enemy, and remain resilient in the recovery phase. Many feel, as Randy Newman puts it, “They’re tryina’ wash us away.”
Sources and Further Reading:
“Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How it Changed America” by John M. Barry
“Father Mississippi: The Story of the Great Flood of 1927” by Lyle Saxon