Modern history

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

THE ROAR OF THE CREVASSE drowned all sound. It carried up and down the river for miles, carried inland for miles. It roared like some great wild beast proclaiming its dominance. Men more miles away felt the levee vibrate under their feet and feared for their own lives.

There is no accurate count of the number of men swept to their deaths as the levee broke. The Red Cross listed two dead. The Memphis Commercial-Appeal said, “Thousands of workers were frantically piling sandbags…when the levee caved. It was impossible to recover the bodies swept onward by the current at an enormous rate of speed.” The Jackson Clarion-Ledger reported, “Refugees coming into Jackson last night from Greenville…declare there is not the slightest doubt in their minds that several hundred negro plantation workers lost their lives in the great sweep of water which swept over the country.” Judge R. C. Trimble, an eyewitness, said he did not expect the bodies to be recovered for days, if ever. The Associated Press quoted National Guard Sergeant Henry Bay, who was in charge of the rescue and “estimated that more than 100 negroes had been drowned in the flood waters.” The only official account, that of the National Guard officer at the crevasse site, stated only, “No lives were lost among the Guardsmen.”

The crevasse was immense. Giant billows rose to the tops of tall trees, crushing them, while the force of the current gouged out the earth. Quickly the crevasse widened, until a wall of water three-quarters of a mile across and more than 100 feet high—later its depth was estimated at as much as 130 feet—raged onto the Delta. (Weeks later, engineer Frank Hall sounded the still-open break: “We had a lead line one hundred feet long, and we could find no bottom.”) The water’s force gouged a 100-foot-deep channel half a mile wide for a mile inland.

It was an immense amount of water. The crevasse at Mounds Landing poured out 468,000 second-feet onto the Delta, triple the volume of a flooding Colorado, more than double a flooding Niagara Falls, more than the entire upper Mississippi ever carried, including in 1993. The crevasse was pouring out such volume that in 10 days it could cover nearly 1 million acres with water 10 feet deep. And the river would be pumping water through the crevasse for months.

ON THE RIVER ITSELF the crevasse created a maelstrom. Hundreds of workers climbed onto a barge below the break to escape, and a tugboat began to push it downstream. The engines strained and the barge and boat trembled, yet they were being sucked upstream, toward the crevasse. “Let’s put all the niggers on the barge and cut it loose,” a man said. Charlie Gibson, a retired levee contractor so feeble that he had to be carried about in a chair but whose advice was so valuable that he had been brought to the levee anyway, ordered: “We ain’t goin’ to cut the barge loose. I’ll shoot you if you try that. If we go, we go together.”

They escaped by angling across to the Arkansas shore. The Pelican, a Mississippi River Commission steamboat, was not so lucky later that day at a far smaller levee break in Arkansas. In full sight of thousands of workers and refugees, the current sucked the Pelican toward this crevasse. Desperately trying to stop, the captain rammed his bow into the levee. The levee collapsed and the Pelican capsized, was dragged through the crevasse rolling over and over. In one of the most heroic acts of the flood, a black man named Sam Tucker jumped into a rowboat alone—no one would join him—and headed for the break. The current lifted his boat and rocketed him through the turbulence. Somehow he survived, followed the steamer, and a mile inland picked 2 men out of the water. They were alive; 19 others drowned. The amount of water pouring through this break paled when compared to Mounds Landing. Yet the Memphis Commercial-Appeal wrote, “It was as if [the steamer] had been carried over Niagara Falls.”

Meanwhile, the water from Mounds Landing was roaring inland. E. M. Barry recalled: “[T]he water was leaping, it looked like, in rapids thirty feet high. And right in front of the break was the old Moore plantation house, a big mule barn, and two big, enormous trees. And when we came back by there [a few hours later] everything was gone.”

For three miles inland from Mounds Landing the river scoured out the land—today a large, deep lake still remains as a legacy—but even as the mountain of water flattened, spread out, and slowed, its force remained terrifying. It tore out trees, made splinters out of thousands of thin sharecropper cabins, crushed or undermined and then swept away houses and barns.

Cora Walker, a black woman, lived a few miles south of the break. Her home lay beside the toe of the levee. “An airplane kept flying over, real low, backwards and forwards,…told us we better get to the levee. A lady was coming to the levee, had a bundle of clothes on her head and a rope around her waist leading a cow.” Suddenly, the water arrived, tearing south. “She and the cow both drowned…. Just as we got to the levee we turned back and saw our house turned over. We could see our own place tumbling, hear our things falling down, and the grinding sound. And here come another house floating by. The water was stacked. The waves were standing high, real high. If they hit anything, they got it. Every time the waves came, the levee would shake like you were in a rocking chair.”

One planter a few more miles inland stood on his veranda and watched along the rim of the horizon “the flood water approach in the form of a tan colored wall seven feet high, and with a roar as of a mighty wind.”

In Leland, twenty-five miles from the crevasse, Mrs. D. S. Flanagan watched the flood come “in waves five or six feet deep and just rolling and rolling. I never had seen it come like that, so dangerous looking, in all the floods I had been in. There was a Negro standing on the railroad track below the oil mill, and, when the water hit that track, it just washed out all the way under the track, the Negro into it, and he was never seen again.”

The water rolled over and over itself, lifting trees, mules, roofs, dogs, cows, and bodies, rolling forward, the water filthy, liquid mud, churning, spitting brown foam and froth. Sam Huggins recalled: “When that levee broke, the water just come whooshing, you could just see it coming, just see big waves of it coming. It was coming so fast till you just get excited, because you didn’t have time to do nothing, nothing but knock a hole in your ceiling and try to get through if you could…. It was rising so fast till peoples didn’t get a chance to get nothing…. People and dogs and everything like that on top of houses. You’d see cows and hogs trying to get somewhere where people would rescue them…. Cows just bellowing and swimming…. A lot of those farmhouses didn’t have no ceiling that would hold nobody.”

Newman Bolls said that the water moved with such force that behind one large tree the ground was dry—the current broke around it. In that space a cow and its calf stood bellowing with a deep, plaintive sound. Later, when the current lessened, water filled the sanctuary; the animals drowned. They were joined by others. In the quiet of the new sea, animals by the hundreds were floating.

Those who understood the river’s power abandoned their homes and left their doors and windows open to let the water flow through and lessen resistance; closed doors forced buildings to bear the full current. In Winterville, several families gathered together in what seemed a sturdy house. The current swirled around it, scoured out a hole 25 feet deep underneath it, and the house collapsed. The Associated Press reported, “23 white women and children, marooned, in one house…were drowned in the Mississippi flood, says a report made public today by [Seguine] Allen…. Urgent warnings to all people living between here and Vicksburg nearly 100 miles…were issued by Maj. Allen. ‘Wall of water going south is very dangerous and unless people move to levees quickly, they will be drowned.’”

The superintendent of the Illinois Central in Greenville had scattered dozens of boxcars on Delta sidings for emergency shelter. Fred Chaney, outside Greenville, had been getting phone reports of the advance of the crevasse water and moved into a boxcar. “At 9:00, we could hear the rustle of waters in the woods a mile north of our box car haven. It sounded not unlike the first gust of wind before an on-coming storm and a shiver shot up and down my spine as the rustling noise grew louder and its true significance plumbed the depths of my mind.”

It took three days for the water to reach L. T. Wade, deep within the Delta. But when it arrived, it covered the horizon. And it still came in force: “The water just came in waves, just like a big breaker in the ocean, coming over this land. It was a really frightening thing to see something like that. It didn’t follow the… It just came right on over and rolled over.”

“The situation is far worse than can possibly be imagined from the outside,” stated General Green from Greenville. “It is the greatest disaster ever to come to this section and we need help from the federal government to prevent the worst kind of suffering.”

FOR GOD’S SAKE, SEND US BOATS! was the headline blared across page 1 of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, quoting a plea from Mississippi Governor Dennis Murphree: “For God’s sake send us boats. It would be impossible to overestimate the distress of the stricken sections of the state. Back from the levees, where the land is flooded by backwaters, people are living on housetops, clinging to trees, and barely existing in circumstances of indescribable horror. The only way we can get them out of there is by boat and we haven’t the boats at present. Please try to make the people of New Orleans realize how urgent this is.”

In fact, it was nearly indescribable. Mounds Landing was the greatest single crevasse ever to occur anywhere on the Mississippi River. It would flood an area 50 miles wide and 100 miles long with up to 20 feet of water. It would put water over the tops of houses 75 miles away in Yazoo City. A total of 185,459 people lived in the region that would be flooded by it. Virtually all of them would be forced out of their homes; 69,574 would live in refugee camps, some for as long as five months. The Red Cross would feed an additional 87,668 outside the refugee camps—jammed into shelters ranging from elegant hotels to boxcars. Most of the remaining 30,000 would flee the Delta.

There would be many other crevasses to come, devastating hundreds of thousands more people downriver.

GREENVILLE SEEMED SAFE. The river levee protected the city from the Mississippi, and a rear protection levee protected it from water that came from a crevasse such as this one. Even before the Mounds Landing break, the city had actually pulled hundreds of black men off the river levee and put them to work raising the protection levee. But people were afraid. Within three hours after the crevasse special trains began carrying people out of town.

All that day police rounded up hundreds more black men and carried them to the protection levee. Levee board engineers assured citizens it would hold, assured them the city itself would not be flooded.

Waiting, the city seethed with anxiety and activity. LeRoy Percy spent the day as he had spent the preceding several days, at the levee board office on the phone. He had called planters who had refused to send their sharecroppers to the levee and demanded that they do so. He had spoken with Lewis Pierson, president of both the Irving Trust Company in New York and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce about organizing a national campaign for legislation to settle the river problem once and for all. He had involved his peers in New Orleans, bankers and lawyers with whom he hunted and played cards at the Boston Club, about the same issues. He had once again assured nervous bankers in New York and St. Louis that any money advanced for sandbags, lumber, and wages—blacks on the levee were paid 75 cents a day, less than they got to pick cotton—would be repaid. He had spoken to executives of the Illinois Central, arranging for supplies and more empty boxcars to use for shelter in case of the worst. His son had helped him in all this.

Now the levee board headquarters became even more a beehive, the National Guard headquarters a great Army camp preparing for war. Large Army tents were going up on the levee and giant kitchens were being built to feed thousands of refugees and workers. Trucks rattled through the streets carrying laborers and supplies. Hammers were pounding boats together in the lumber mills. Police and guardsmen impressed every black male they saw and sent them to the protection levee.

The crevasse water first encountered the Greenville protection levee deep into the night. “The water was just rolling, like an ocean wave,” said Levye Chapple, a leader of the black community who was sacking the protection levee. It struck the way the sea strikes against rocks, with violence, roaring, shooting up waves 12 and 15 feet high, jumping over the levee, sweeping away sandbags, backing up and rising higher. Within moments the water had climbed to a depth of 8 feet—the same as the levee—while oceanlike swells rolled over it. Still deeper water was coming. Most workers ran. Chapple—along with dozens of others—had guns pointed at him and stayed, working as the swells washed over him, washed the sandbags away, washed over the levee. Finally, as the levee gave way, he shouted, “Everybody run for your life!”

At 3:10 A.M. the fire whistles and church bells in Greenville sounded, and suddenly the streets were thick with people running to churches, to city hall, to the courthouse, to commercial buildings, and to the only dry land left—the river levee itself.

In the city streets the water initially retained the same ferocity as outside the city. Huge oil tanks from the Standard Oil storage facility in the northern part of the city came rolling down the street. Lamar Britton, a black woman, recalls, “You could see waves coming in big as you, five-, six-feet-high surf, rolling over, like the ocean, rolling chicken coops, mules, cows mixed up in it.”

Britton’s neighborhood—the bottomlands, the black section—soon had 15 feet of angry roiling water. The buildings acted like breakwaters. A few blocks away, Mrs. Henry Ransom, a white woman, saw a still-violent but calmer scene: “The water was coming in just in a whirling fashion, and there were plenty cows, and it was a bale of cotton…on the bales of cotton there was chickens…there was horses and mules coming down the street in this water…this current…the water was just spreading.”

Up to 10 feet of water inundated downtown. For weeks the current through the heart of the city, at the intersections of Broadway with Main, Nelson, and Washington Streets, would remain violent and deadly; like crisscrossing rapids, currents collided in spray, capsizing boats, drowning several people.

In the best neighborhoods, on the highest ground, the water came gently. It snaked up streets, running first in the gutters, filling them, spilling into the street, rising steadily, climbing steps and porches, but often stopping at the door. The highest ground in the city had only a foot of water.

WHEN THE FIRE WHISTLE BLEW, the Percys knew what it meant. Everyone in Greenville knew what it meant.

In the darkness of early morning, in his vast quiet house, LeRoy Percy had to face the great disaster he had always feared and fought to prevent. Now it had come. It threatened to end the life he had known, end the life he had tried to build, not only for himself, but for all of the Delta. The river was seizing the Delta back. LeRoy was sixty-seven years old, but he would concede nothing yet, not even to the river. At whatever cost, he was determined to preserve what he had built.

Meanwhile, the river rolled South.

AS GREAT AS THE DISASTER of Mounds Landing was, the flood had not even begun to exhaust itself. All the water flooding the Delta would be funneled by hills back into the Mississippi River at Vicksburg, a hundred miles south. From there, reenergized, the flood would continue downriver, shouldering levees aside.

The Memphis Commercial-Appeal warned: “Louisiana waits with fear and foreboding…. In St. Bernard Parish, below New Orleans, the section in which the crevasse of 1922 occurred, levees were being patrolled by guards armed with shotguns and all strangers were halted.” The guards were fur trappers who trusted no one and would not hesitate to use their shotguns. They had already shot at least four men who had come too near the levee.

But the men who ran New Orleans—indeed, ran the entire state of Louisiana, or at least what they cared about in it—did not now contemplate anything so unsophisticated as sabotage. They had power, and, like LeRoy Percy, they intended to exercise it to protect their interests.

On the day that newspapers from Portland, Maine, to San Diego, California, put the Delta’s plight on page 1, in New Orleans the headline of the Morning Tribune read, “Coolidge in Conference on Spillway.” The story made no reference to the meeting a few years before, when the head of the Corps of Engineers had advised that New Orleans businessmen should, instead of building a spillway, simply dynamite the levee in an emergency. But the men of consequence in New Orleans recalled that advice. One site long considered for a spillway, of course, was in St. Bernard.

The struggle against the river had begun as one of man against nature. It was becoming one of man against man.

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