Modern history

CHAPTER TWELVE

THERE IS NO SIGHT like the rising Mississippi. One cannot look at it without awe, or watch it rise and press against the levees without fear. It grows darker, angrier, dirtier; eddies and whirlpools erupt on its surface; it thickens with trees, rooftops, the occasional body of a mule. Its currents roil more, flow swifter, pummel its banks harder. When a section of riverbank caves into the river, acres of land at a time collapse, snapping trees with the great cracking sounds of heavy artillery. On the water the sound carries for miles.

Unlike a human enemy, the river has no weakness, makes no mistakes, is perfect; unlike a human enemy, it will find and exploit any weakness. To repel it requires an intense, nearly perfect, and sustained effort. Major John Lee, in the 1920s the Army district engineer in Vicksburg who would in 1944 make the cover of Time as an important World War II general, observed, “In physical and mental strain, a prolonged high-water fight on threatened levees can only be compared with real war.”

In 1922 the Mississippi River was rising. Soon after LeRoy Percy began his struggle with the Klan, the river reached extreme high water and threatened all the tens of thousands of square miles in the river’s floodplain. Even more than the Klan, it threatened the society LeRoy Percy had built, and it turned both his focus and that of his Klan opponents to the river, temporarily unifying them again.

And there was something new and frightening about this flood. For more than forty years the Mississippi River Commission had set standards and contributed money to build levees. For most of that time the overwhelming majority of the people in the Mississippi valley had trusted the commission and its strategies. Now some were accusing it of flawed strategies that exposed the valley to danger.

To understand the threat to the Delta and to all the floodplain, one has to understand both this criticism and what man had done in the years since James Eads had triumphed over Andrew Humphreys.

ALTHOUGH for very different reasons, Eads and Humphreys had both rejected the theory that levees alone caused a significant deepening of the channel. It was the only thing they had agreed upon. Yet, beginning a few years after both had left the scene, Mississippi River Commission engineers began to meld Humphreys’ arguments for levees with Eads’ arguments about the effect of current. The result was a bastardization of both their arguments, and a theory that both Eads and Humphreys had not only rejected but condemned: in 1885 the commission stated flatly, and repeated thereafter, “Levees designed to limit the high water width of the river, by concentration of the flood discharge of the channel,…secure the energy of the flood volume in scouring and enlarging the channel.”

This pure expression of the levees-only theory was now policy. Few people along the lower Mississippi disputed this policy because Congress, throughout the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, resisted spending money on “internal improvements” on fiscal and constitutional grounds. So those who wanted money for levees embraced the claim that levees deepened the channel and thus aided shipping and interstate commerce, a clear federal responsibility. For forty years, congressmen and senators, governors and state and local politicians, local levee boards, contractors, planters, and cotton brokers all became wedded to and defenders of the commission’s policy.

Meanwhile, the commission itself, although created specifically to inject civilian input into Army thinking, had fallen under the influence of Army engineers. Its president was an Army officer who reported to the chief of Army engineers. The commission did include two civilians and employed civilians, but Army engineers, who had neither special background nor training in the problems of the Mississippi River, made all important decisions. They were not scientists asking questions. They were soldiers serving a regular tour of duty. By the 1920s, after decades of adherence to the levees-only policy, few officers questioned it.

So for decades the river commission followed a policy of sealing the river off from its natural reservoirs and outlets. This both opened up millions of acres to development, reinforcing the political support for levees-only, and increased the volume of water in the river along with the current. But the stronger current did not seem to dredge out the bottom enough to compensate. Floods that carried less water were rising higher than earlier ones that had carried more. In 1912, for example, a flood devastated the lower Mississippi region. Though carrying far less water than the great flood of 1882, it smashed height records on seventeen of the eighteen river gauges from Cairo to the Gulf.

This contradicted the predictions of the levees-only theory, but the Corps ignored the findings. After the 1912 flood a few civilian engineers tried to reopen the debate about levee policy, chief among them James F. Kemper, a thin, intense young man to whom the cause became an obsession. The commission ridiculed him. Later Kemper recalled, “I was not accustomed to ridicule and it hurt to the bone.” But as he persisted, abuse supplanted ridicule. “That was more to my liking. I rather like to fight.”

When he presented his arguments to a meeting of engineers in New Orleans, General Arsène Perrilliat patronized him: “The alluvial stream is a gigantic hydraulic dredge…. Just as your arm will have its muscles developed if you exercise it and train it intelligently, so if the Mississippi River is guided intelligently…by a levees-only policy…it will grow in section so that it will carry floods to the sea, where we want them to go, without damage to us.”

Then came the 1913 flood. The New York Times estimated 2,000 dead in Ohio alone. Fifty died in Hamilton, 150 in Zanesville, 200 in Dayton, and at least that many in Columbus. When the same waters reached the lower Mississippi, deaths were few but economic damage was vast.

The deaths of northern whites sensitized the country in ways that deaths of black sharecroppers did not, and Percy took advantage of the disaster to push Congress to increase appropriations for levees and, for the first time, to do so solely for flood control—no longer using the pretense of aiding shipping. He spent weeks in Washington leading a consortium of interests, and wrote home that he “succeeded in getting a favorable report…[and] its passage.”

A few civilian engineers also opened savage attacks on the river commission and the Corps. Yielding finally to the pressure, the commission agreed to conduct “new” studies of cutoffs, reservoirs, and outlets. But the respective reviews lacked scientific integrity.

The “study” of cutoffs, for example, reviewed old arguments and observations—originally made between 1831 and 1848—regarding two cutoffs in Louisiana. It collected no new data and performed no experiments. Its conclusion affirmed the old policy: it rejected cutoffs.

The issue of reservoirs was handled similarly. Reservoirs had been a pet proposal of Humphreys’ archenemy Charles Ellet, and in 1874, Humphreys had convened a board of Army engineers to investigate them. That board had rejected reservoirs but conceded, “The question of absolute practicality could only be decided by a series of extensive and elaborate surveys, for which neither funds nor time were available.”

In the ensuing forty years not a single such survey had been made, yet the “new” study again unequivocally condemned the idea. Ohioans who had just suffered a disastrous flood ignored the findings and built their own reservoir system. Army engineers opposed it and warned it would not succeed, but, since no federal money was involved, they could not block it. (Over the next three-quarters of a century, these reservoirs would prove successful.)

Then came the question of outlets, also called spillways. The deaths in 1913 had frightened New Orleans; the city had demanded a new study. Mississippi River Commission secretary Major Clarke Smith did collect fresh data and confessed, “[T]here is no doubt that a spillway would reduce extreme flood heights at New Orleans.” Still, he recommended against building one because “its use would be rare…and the expense great.”

The commission published his conclusion but, despite repeated requests from civilian engineers, refused to release his new data. And the formal commission response to the call for spillways came in 1914 from commission member J. A. Ockerson. Ockerson revealed the openness of his mind when he said that he conducted his study solely to calm people in New Orleans, adding, “Whether their fears are groundless or not, whether based on facts or not, it justifies a review.” Ignoring both the commission’s new data and Humphreys’ old data, he declared: “Guglielmini confirmed the opinion as to the little utility of spillways for reducing flood heights…. It is difficult to find a reason for any change at this time.”

Guglielmini had made his observations on the Po River centuries earlier. Humphreys himself had stated that the results predicted by Guglielmini’s theory “are all contrary to observation.”

The engineering review thus left the levees-only policy in force. The only policy impact of the 1912 and 1913 disasters was to force the Mississippi River Commission to set new standards for levees, making them higher and thicker. Then in 1920, in accord with its theory that called for increasing the volume of the Mississippi River, the commission began sealing the river off from Cypress Creek.

CYPRESS CREEK was located on the west bank of the Mississippi, about 35 miles by river (less than half that in a straight line) above Greenville and 15 miles below the mouth of the Arkansas, which drains a basin stretching deep into the mountains of New Mexico and Colorado.

The 1916 Mississippi River flood was not a great flood, but during it 336,000 cubic feet of water each second escaped from the Mississippi into Cypress Creek. This amount exceeds the flow of the Danube in flood, far exceeds Niagara Falls in flood, and more than doubles the flow of the flooding Colorado River.

The water that escaped into Cypress Creek inundated a huge natural reservoir, and eventually found its way into the Boeuf, Ouachita, or Red Rivers, thence to the sea either by returning to the Mississippi or going down the Atchafalaya River, the greatest outlet of the Mississippi.

Closing Cypress Creek sparked controversy. James Kemper and a few others argued that increasing the volume of the Mississippi by 300,000 second-feet or more was madness. He insisted that the closure would raise the flood height 6 feet higher than it would otherwise be.

To prove his case he and others tried to convince the Corps to build a hydraulics laboratory for studying the river. It was not a new idea, but General Lansing Beach, chief of engineers, rejected it, explaining: “The art of dam construction is so far advanced in this country that a national hydraulic laboratory is not necessary to advance that science…. I particularly desire to emphasize my opinion that the hydraulic laboratory proposed would have no value whatever in solving flood control.”

As Kemper later observed, “It is so much easier to believe than to think; it is astounding how much more believing is done than thinking. It is more astounding that an honest study was not made of conditions resulting from [the levees-only policy]. Not only was essential data not available but it appeared as though the failure to acquire it was deliberate. The determination to carry out this impossible theory was so great that, with many, it appeared to be an obsession.”

The obsession was proving dangerous. The Corps of Engineers and the Mississippi River Commission closed the Cypress Creek outlet in 1921. No longer could Mississippi River water escape into Cypress Creek.

BY MID-MARCH 1922, shortly after LeRoy Percy first spoke against the Klan, Kemper was predicting a record or near-record flood. At the time, he stood alone in that prediction.

On April 10 in Greenville, the river rose unexpectedly over the 50-foot mark on the gauge, just inches below the all-time record of 50.8 feet.* Water already “in sight”—i.e., upriver or in tributaries—would keep the Mississippi rising for at least two more weeks.

On April 11 the gauge at the foot of Canal Street in New Orleans, more than 400 miles downriver from Greenville, also neared a record. Along the entire length of the lower Mississippi, people grew tense, fearing they were in for the battle of their lives.

The next day in Louisiana a call went out for volunteers to guard the levee at night. In Mississippi identical efforts had already begun. Armed men walked every inch of the levee watching for weak points; they also watched for dynamiters. If the levee yields on one bank of the river, those on the opposite bank are suddenly safe.

On April 15 the river at Greenville rose to 51 feet—a record—and continued rising.

Each hour the river drained more resources, more energy, from the people along it. Supplies of sandbags were exhausted. The men stacking them were exhausted. Money was exhausted.

On April 19, Percy once again addressed a mass meeting convened in the People’s Theater. The Klan fight was put on hold; the river took precedence. This address contained no rhetoric and little pleading. He stated the facts. Already the levee board had expended all of its funds. There was no money for sandbags, for barge fuel, for lumber, for any of the other things a high-water fight required. They needed to work together, he said, to pool all that they had, to make all their labor available, to devote all their resources to this fight. Hundreds of people listened to him, and they organized in smaller groups, each agreeing to feed levee workers, or arrange for timber, or supply shovels.

Percy stripped his own cotton compress and plantations of laborers and sent them to the levee under the command of his manager, Charlie Williams, an expert flood fighter. Tens of thousands of men were fighting the river, filling and stacking sandbags, building “mud boxes”—planks nailed together at the crown of the levee, backed up by sandbags—to protect against wave wash, searching for signs of sloughing or of the river undermining the levee.

Meanwhile, Percy was asking bankers across the country for money; he also, with nine other leading Delta planters, one from each affected county, created the West Mississippi Flood Committee to mount an emergency lobbying effort in Washington. As a result, up and down the river mayors, the heads of levee boards, and bank presidents rained telegrams on Congress. Read one wire: “Everything possible is being done to hold the levees from ravages of highest water in histroy [sic] but with funds exhausted by the river commission and levee board they cannot expect to hold the situation….” Read another: “Without the $2 million…the fight will be hopeless in this district. With sufficient funds we have every prospect of winning this fight.” Within days, Congress appropriated $1 million for the emergency.

The levees were holding, but the river was so high that tributaries could not empty into it; instead, the Mississippi forced its own waters back up their mouths. The flooding covered parts of six Delta counties and turned 20,000 Delta people into terrified refugees. “People from Belzoni to Vicksburg flooded by backwater,” pleaded a new wire to Congress. “Conditions desperate without food or means of escape…. Suffering growing daily more widespread and acute. Believe only relief organized by government on large scale can equal emergency.”

There was no more federal relief. At Greenville the river, far above the old record, was still rising. Virtually every male black within miles was working on the levees. Meanwhile, the flood poured south.

IN 1922, NEW ORLEANS was a city of 450,000 people. At its back lay Lake Pontchartrain, 22 miles across and 50 miles wide, and at its front lay the river. No bridge crossed the river, much less the lake. Roads were poor in the best of circumstances, worse than useless in heavy rain. The only way out of the city was rail; a flood would cut even that connection. In an emergency the city would be impossible to evacuate or escape.

The Mississippi River Commission’s official New Orleans flood gauge was at Carrollton Bend near Tulane University, where St. Charles Avenue, one of the most elegant streets in America, intersects with Carrollton Avenue. The 1912 flood had set the record height of 21 feet at Carrollton. On April 14 the 1922 flood registered 21.3 feet at Carrollton, and rising. The crest was still hundreds of miles upriver.

At the foot of Canal Street in downtown New Orleans, the U.S. Weather Bureau maintained its own gauge. On April 25 it registered 22.7 feet, with the crest still far upriver. The river rose above rooftops, to the top of the levee. In places it rose above the levee. City engineer John Klorer, in a highly confidential report to the mayor, warned: “At Octavia there is low levee as well as levee deficient in cross-section…. At Louisiana Avenue the levee occupied by the Celeste Street shed is below the present stage of the river by 18 to 24 inches…. [The river] is being held out by a line of sandbags plus loose dirt…. There is not enough progress being made by the present forces.”

Three thousand city workers and the National Guard frantically struggled to raise the levees higher. Far above New Orleans, when a levee board president discovered a dangerous section of levee and begged Governor Parker for a few men to patrol it, Parker refused: “We are in a most desperate fight here and need every man we are able to secure.”

At the Esplanade wharf at the edge of the French Quarter, the Mississippi curved around a sharp bend greater than 90 degrees. There the overwhelming weight and momentum of the water coming downriver threw itself directly against the levee. The turn is so sharp that the water surface on the outside of the bend rises a foot higher than on the inside, as if banking around a racetrack, and the currents generate such force that they make this bend the deepest spot on the river, 240 feet deep. On Esplanade Street 100 yards from the levee, the cobblestones suddenly broke apart and a cone of earth shaped like a miniature volcano thrust upward and water began to shoot out of it. It was a sand boil, caused by the tremendous pressure of the water pushing its way underneath the levee; the muddy water it spewed forth meant that earth from the levee was being shot into the air. An emergency crew built a ring of sandbags to contain the water until pressure equalized.

New Orleans had four competing daily newspapers, each run by men who used their papers as tools in a competition for influence and power. The New Orleans Times-Picayune was the oldest, the largest, the most conservative, the most powerful. Earlier, when the river equaled the all-time record at Carrollton, it had printed the news on page 15 in a one-paragraph story. The flooding of Arkansas City, 10 miles below the now-closed Cypress Creek outlet, had been kept out of the papers entirely. Now no newspaper published news of the sand boil on Esplanade.

The silence did not calm the city. And the Times-Picayune had to report what the competing Item put on page 1: Isaac Cline, the highly respected chief of the regional office of the U.S. Weather Bureau, was predicting a record stage of 22.6 feet at Carrollton and warning, “I cannot say whether the present prediction will be final or not.” Soon Cline raised his prediction to 23 feet, almost a foot and a half above the old record.

New Orleans Mayor Andrew McShane announced that the city was in no danger. Simultaneously, he notified all city workers to hold themselves in readiness for emergencies, and said that twenty-four-hour patrols of the levees were being conducted for 100 miles upriver.

The Port of New Orleans ordered all ships to proceed at slow speed to prevent wakes from washing over levees and sandbags. An anonymous telegram to Governor Parker published in the press gave a more forceful warning: “Notify the barge line that if the state cannot stop this we will. The next boat that comes down at such high speed will need two pilots, as we intend to kill the first one. Our guards are armed with Winchesters and they have orders to shoot to kill.”

The crest was still at least a week away, a week of ever-rising water. Major R. T. Cotner, the New Orleans district engineer for the river commission, affirmed, “The levees are better and stronger now than at any time in history.” But were they strong enough?

ON APRIL 24, the levee crevassed at Myrtle Grove, Louisiana, 50 miles downriver from New Orleans in a region with few inhabitants. On April 26, near Ferriday, Louisiana, across the river from Natchez, Mississippi, two tiny sand boils, barely an inch in diameter and shooting water only a foot high, erupted. Less than five minutes later, the levee abruptly caved into the river. Soon the breach exceeded 1,000 thousand feet in width. The river roared through it in giant billows, waves exploding as high as the tops of trees, forcing 20,000 people from their homes.

Engineers were stunned. The crevasse broke at a spot more than a mile from the river’s natural banks, where the water seemed still. No current had attacked the levee. The weight of the river alone, pressing against the levee for weeks, had caused the collapse.

In New Orleans outright panic erupted. Hundreds of people, not trusting the papers, came to the levee to see the river themselves. They left terrified. The water licked at the top of the levee; indeed, for long stretches it stood higher than the levee. Only sandbags held it. And the river was still rising.

On April 27, levee breaks upriver forced the New Orleans Times-Picayune for the first time to put the flood on page 1. Its editorial tried to calm the frightened city: “As for the high water situation, both state and federal engineers give us reassuring reports. The levees are in better shape than they have ever been in…. This newspaper assumes that the expert and seasoned guardians of the levees know what they are talking about. In our judgment the official assurances justify a reasoned and sane confidence.”

Twelve miles below New Orleans at a place called Poydras in St. Bernard Parish, the Mississippi River, after running in a straight line for several miles, took another sharp turn. Louisiana state engineers described the area as “the bight of a big bend in the river, where the full effect of the strong current was felt.”

There, also on April 27, also without warning, less than an hour after a guard had inspected the levee and found no problem, the levee imploded. It happened almost precisely at a site, barely 5 miles from an inlet of the Gulf of Mexico, that had long been considered for an artificial spillway. St. Bernard and neighboring Plaquemines Parishes were flooded. Rumors of sabotage swept the two parishes.

By luck the Poydras crevasse killed no one, but it ultimately reached a width of 1,500 feet and dug a hole 90 feet deep where the levee had been. The levee itself added 25 feet of height. That meant that a moving mountain of water nearly 1,500 feet wide and up to 115 feet high—as high as an eleven-story building—exploded onto the land.

AFTER THE POYDRAS CREVASSE, the river at New Orleans fell rapidly, as if a plug had been pulled out of a sink. With collective and immense relief, all New Orleans watched the river fall. All along the city’s waterfront, from the most fashionable homes a few blocks from the river on St. Charles Avenue and in the Garden District, through the downtown business district, down to the working-class slum of the French Quarter, down to the wharves and industrial areas below that, down past the largest sugar refinery in the world, the water level fell. It fell 6 inches in a day, when it had been rising with the crest still upriver. It fell 2 feet in three days, when it had been rising with the crest still upriver. By the time the crest arrived, so much water was pouring out through the Poydras crevasse that the river did not even approach the record set earlier.

Meanwhile, far upriver in Greenville, the crest had set a new record height of 52 feet. The people of the Delta had waged a tremendous struggle. Their levee system had held. Backwater flooding had created tens of thousands of refugees, but the levees had held.

After the flood, engineers interpreted these events differently.

THE MISSISSIPPI RIVER COMMISSION and the Corps of Engineers believed that the 1922 flood proved that their ancient fight with the Mississippi River had nearly ended, and that they would soon see themselves crowned as victors. They insisted that the crevasses in Louisiana had come in substandard levees. They bragged that for the first time in history a record-setting Mississippi River flood had passed from Illinois to the Gulf without a single break in a levee built to commission standards. The 70,000 homeless in three states had been the victims of either substandard levees or backwater.

So the Mississippi River Commission turned its attention to completing its work: seeing that all levees met its standards for grade and section, and laying plans to close the final and greatest outlet of the Mississippi—the Atchafalaya River.

But if the commission was congratulating itself and saw final victory in the near future, other engineers, especially James Kemper, looked at the 1922 flood and saw imminent danger.

The 1922 flood had broken no records for height and had threatened no levees above Cypress Creek, but it had broken records on every single gauge below Cypress Creek, from Greenville all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. Critics of the Army argued that the closure of Cypress Creek had raised flood heights dangerously high.

Walter Sillers, Sr., head of the levee board based in Greenville, warned both Percy and Charles West, whose appointment to the Mississippi River Commission Percy had engineered, “A situation has been created in the upper part of the Mississippi Levee District which, in my opinion, is a menace and endangers…all of the counties of the district.” Kemper pointed out: “The Mississippi River Commission closed off Bayou Plaquemine, and they closed off Bayou Lafourche. They have closed off everything that can be closed. They closed Cypress Creek, all under the same policy, and every closure has raised the flood stages to a stage higher than they were before…. In 1850 the levee at Raccourcci was required to be 8 feet high. It is well above 30 feet now. At Morganza, a levee of 7.5 feet held the flood of 1850. It had 38 feet of water against it this year. Forty miles above New Orleans the levee that held the flood of 1850 was 1.8 feet high. Now it must be 20 feet high.”

Water runs to the sea. If an obstacle—such as a dam or a levee—prevents water from flowing where gravity would send it, then the water’s mass and potential energy builds. The greater the force applied in an effort to block water from its natural flow, the greater will grow the mass of water so blocked, and the greater will become the potential power of its energy. The engineer of the levee district immediately north of Greenville, stated, “[W]e are in reality facing a condition and not a theory.”

The Corps clung to its theory.

IF PEOPLE UPRIVER VOICED CONCERN, in New Orleans they were desperate.

Kemper warned loudly that New Orleans had escaped disaster in 1922 only because the flood had, despite its record height, carried far from record volume. He pointed out that, measured in cubic feet per second, twelve floods in the preceding forty years had exceeded the 1922 flood.

The terrible flood of 1882 had carried 2,250,000 cubic feet per second. The 1912 and 1913 floods had each carried 2,000,000 cfs. The 1922 flood had carried not quite 1,750,000 cfs. Kemper believed that 1922 did not even suggest the forces that the Mississippi could unleash.

What would happen if a flood as great as those of 1912 and 1913, much less 1882, moved down the river with Cypress Creek closed? What would happen if the river commission proceeded with its plan to close the last outlet, the Atchafalaya—thus increasing the volume of water passing New Orleans by approximately one-third?

More than ever, Kemper was convinced New Orleans needed a spillway for emergencies. He believed the experience of the Poydras crevasse proved his case. He began to fight, hard, for his beliefs, and was now joined by far more powerful allies.

Jim Thomson threw his weight behind Kemper. Long interested in the river, Thomson owned two New Orleans newspapers, the Morning Tribune and the afternoon Item. He was also well connected in Washington; he had worked in several presidential campaigns and, using family like a medieval potentate cementing alliances, became the son-in-law of the Speaker of the House and the brother-in-law of a senator, with his niece married to a senator. He contacted the presidents of every bank in the city, the Cotton Exchange, the Board of Trade, the Association of Commerce, and union leaders, then formed them all into the Safe River Committee of 100. Together their connections stretched from Washington to Wall Street.

For the next five years Thomson pushed Presidents Harding and Coolidge, the War Department, and the Congress to require the river commission to build a spillway.

General Beach, head of the Army engineers, responded by charging that New Orleans’ interests wanted a spillway only to save money. The city’s port infrastructure—docks, railroads, grain elevators, cotton warehouses, wharves—had been built to the old Mississippi River Commission standard. Raising it all to the new commission standard would cost millions of dollars, and the federal government would pay none of it. Beach also warned, “Some one has apparently started a propaganda, judging by the letters which are reaching this office…. Indiscriminate accusations against adopted methods can only result in harm.” When the criticism did not stop, he threatened the city, subtly intimating that he might advise “capitalists” to invest in competing ports like Mobile or Baton Rouge instead of New Orleans.

But his critics persisted. Finally, at a meeting on spillways in August 1922 in New Orleans, Beach told the businessmen present, “If it were my property, I would rather blow a hole in a levee, if conditions became serious, and let the water take care of itself, rather than [pay to] build it and pay $250,000 a year continually in interest charges [for bonds] and the additional cost of maintenance.”

The chief of Army engineers was recommending that his audience blow up a levee and flood its neighbors. It seemed an astounding position for him to take. In taking it he was conceding that they were right, that a spillway would work.

Later that year Thomson had a New Orleans congressman introduce a bill calling for a study of a “comprehensive” approach to the river, including reservoirs, cutoffs, and spillways. Before hearings on the bill, LeRoy Percy maneuvered unsuccessfully to work out a unified position among the levee boards of the lower river.

The hearings were acrimonious. Engineers called each other liars. Percy weighed in. On all technical issues he relied on Charles West, his man on the river commission, and West, like the other commission members, opposed spillways. So Percy had the Greenville Chamber of Commerce contact chambers in Vicksburg; Helena, Arkansas; Tallulah, Louisiana; and elsewhere to lobby against spillways. After four years of bitter fighting, Congress created a “spillway board” to conduct a new study and resolve the issue. The board scheduled a visit to New Orleans in the spring of 1927. It would arrive with the greatest flood ever known.

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