Modern history

CHAPTER NINETEEN

DYNAMITING THE LEVEE downriver from New Orleans would turn 10,000 people into refugees; depending on the volume of water that was loosed, it could also destroy all of St. Bernard Parish and all of Plaquemines Parish that lay on the east bank of the river. (Both the city of New Orleans and Plaquemines Parish straddle both sides of the river.) Although only a line on a map—no bayou, no canal, no natural boundary of any kind—separated St. Bernard Parish and New Orleans, they had nothing in common. But the river was now making them as intimate as predator and prey.

In St. Bernard, the town of Arabi bordered on New Orleans. None of its handful of streets were paved, but their surfaces of crushed shell hardened like concrete. Drainage was in open ditches along the streets; eels made a home of these ditches and wrapped around the legs of any children who slipped in. For drinking water people still used cisterns, which had been outlawed across the line in New Orleans because they bred mosquitoes.

But Arabi thrived. The largest sugar refinery in the world operated there and employed 1,500 people. Several hundred more jobs came from the stockyards, acres of cattle and pigs, and the largest abattoirs in the South. The smell of blood and rotting meat mixed with the delicious sweetness of the cane. In summer, in the heavy heat of Louisiana, the smells hung in the air like grit stuck to sweat, and drew swarms of rats and clouds of insects.

Arabi also had gambling casinos: the River View, the 118 Club, the 102 Club, the Candlelight Club (a converted grammar school), and, the finest and largest, the Jai Alai Club, with turrets flying pennants like a moorish castle, 3,000 seats, and a magnificent dance floor. The Jai Alai gave away a car a week in a drawing: Henry James and Tommy Dorsey played there. All the clubs were illegal, all operated openly (indeed, they advertised in the newspapers), and all were clustered within a few blocks of New Orleans. Slot machines, also illegal, were in nearly every bar and grocery store in the parish.

Below Arabi the parish became rural, then marsh. Of St. Bernard’s 617 square miles, 544 were swamp or marsh. On the good land Italians grew vegetables and oranges, from which came a wine popular during Prohibition; bootleggers added carbonation and sold it as champagne. The swamp was thick with cypress, oak, hanging moss, and alligators and water moccasins; bayous were covered with velvety green scum. The marsh was a trembling prairie of grass. It appeared solid, but only an experienced man feeling his way with a long pole could walk on it; a wrong step sank a man hip-deep in muck. Plaquemines Parish, below St. Bernard, was similar—a narrow strip of solid land near the ribbon of river, then a marsh that merged gradually with sea, where Eads had built his jetties.

Barren as it seemed, the marsh teemed with fishermen, trappers, and bootleggers, most of them “Islenos.” They, their language, and their name came from the Canary Islands in the 1700s, when Spain controlled Louisiana. The largest Isleno town was called Delacroix Island; not actually an island, it was also called “The End of the World.” The road stopped there. It had a school but no electricity, no post office, no telephone. Yet in the twenties, the Islenos made good money. Small fortunes came legally, large ones illegally. Louisiana produced more fur for coats than the rest of the United States combined, or Canada and Russia. And St. Bernard produced far more than any other parish in Louisiana. Muskrats, or simply “rats,” brought as much as $3 for a top-quality pelt, and the best trappers could bring in 150 pelts a day. The governor made $7,500 a year; the best trappers easily made that much in the season from November to March.

The parish also ran a thriving import business. It imported alcohol. Surrounded by the sea, with an intricate system of waterways that no outsider could navigate, the trappers took their boats out to freighters anchored offshore and loaded as many as 1,000 cases of whiskey onto their fishing boats. Canals and bayous ran all through the parish; along every one of them were homes storing whiskey. Al Capone and lesser gangsters visited St. Bernard, where they were amused by Sheriff L. A. Meraux and his deputies, who charged a toll on all whiskey traversing the parish, and by Manuel Molero, one of the largest bootleggers in the South. Meraux and Molero ran the parish. Both were extraordinary men, and they hated each other.

Meraux could be a charming sophisticate, speak perfect Parisian French, and discuss premier vintages. He could abruptly turn foulmouthed, violent, terrifying. Six feet four inches and at least 300 pounds, he had a big, broad head—dark eyes, a broad forehead, thinning light brown hair, a wide mouth, and chubby cheeks that gave him a baby-faced appearance. He had a kindly demeanor but anger, the kind before which men trembled, could explode from him without warning. “Meraux had a studied, careful ruthlessness,” notes William Hyland, a parish historian. “He could be rude, crude, despicable, and disgusting, and the next moment display the polish of a Grandee of Spain.” He was also a physician who began his career determined to do good.

After graduating from Tulane Medical School, he studied in London, Paris, and Berlin, then settled at Johns Hopkins University to do research; Johns Hopkins was possibly the finest institution for medical research in the world at the time. When the 1905 yellow fever epidemic struck New Orleans, he returned to help and worked at Charity Hospital. But he then fell victim to yellow fever and almost died, and he never returned to research. He started a practice, and observed. What he saw did not please him. He later said, “I used to study people and mankind disappointed me. I found out what people would stoop to.”

He became a ruthless real estate entrepreneur, and the largest taxpayer and landowner in the parish. His appetites were enormous. For breakfast he ate a dozen eggs, piles of biscuits, slabs of bacon. His lunches were light, but at dinner he would eat several whole chickens, then an entire strawberry shortcake, or an entire cream cheese mold. His appetite for money and power was equally enormous. His home, just inside the St. Bernard parish line, was a mansion built in 1808 and once owned by sugar planter Alexander de Lesseps, cousin of the builder of the Suez Canal. It had a colonnaded porch, windows of cut glass, and was called Château des Fleurs—Castle of Flowers—because of the extensive gardens on all four sides of the house. It had a small racetrack in the rear, a walkway to the levee in the front, a gazebo on the levee from which to view the river.

Hungry for power too, he used his medical practice to take it, traveling to the farthest reaches of the parish at all hours and often treating people for free. And wherever he went, he gave lollipops to children. “Every one of those lollipops is a vote,” he snorted once. People called him “Doc.” He ran for sheriff.

Meanwhile, deputies of his opponents were setting up roadblocks and hijacking liquor shipments, then selling it themselves. Bootleggers, including Doc’s younger brother Claude, a former Tulane football star and lawyer, issued public warnings that they would tolerate no more hijackings.

On April 20, 1923, a caravan of three large trucks loaded with Claude Meraux’s liquor started toward New Orleans. At a narrow bridge, three deputies ordered them to stop. Two of the deputies were shot. One of the trucks drove over their bodies, killing them.

Claude was indicted as an accessory and fled to Paris. Then Doc was elected sheriff. Claude returned from France, ran for district judge for St. Bernard and Plaquemines Parishes in the next election, and won. The Meraux family now controlled St. Bernard, especially with Doc’s ally Leander Perez, who controlled Plaquemines, as district attorney for both parishes. Their opponents writhed in their net, fought back, and tried to impeach both Claude and Perez over charges including “oppression.” They survived, and consolidated their power. (A decade later, a second impeachment effort would oust Claude, but Perez’ control would last into the 1960s and CBS’ 60 Minutes would investigate his sons.)

But Doc was the leader. He was a study in corruption; having started out good, he was truly corrupt. One night he invited a Prohibition agent to join him for his nightly coffee and beignets in New Orleans at the Morning Call. Meraux said, “I heard you take money from people. I heard Manny Molero has you fixed.”

“I’ve got a few friends down there,” the agent replied.

Meraux promised him $10,000 a month for advance warning of roadblocks. Prohibition agents had a starting salary of $1,186 a year. But the agent was honest. Meraux, three of his deputies, a New Orleans police captain, and thirty others were later arrested and charged in bootlegging. His deputies pleaded guilty, but charges against him were dropped.

He used his jail as his personal dungeon, made alliances with the most conservative elements of New Orleans society—Blanc Monroe put him on the board of the Whitney Bank, the most conservative in the city—and prospered. He had almost everything.

His one rival in the parish was Manuel Molero, a squat, nearly illiterate Isleno from Delacroix Island, barely fluent in English. But Molero was intelligent, with an eye for arcana; he later devised a complex maneuver to cut oil taxes that was copied by the Chase Manhattan Bank, which learned of it through the Canal Bank. A man who was among New Orleans’ most prominent bankers says, “He had absolutely no education, had a terrible Spanish accent you could barely understand. [He and his partner] were the biggest bootleggers around, really thugs, running shiploads of booze. But he was very smart, and very proper in business dealings.” Recalls a New Orleans attorney: “Molero was very principled, with a pound-wise as opposed to penny-foolish approach. He could sense long-term advantages. I picture him smoking a cigar, thinking things out, and coming to a conclusion. He stuck with his plan. Determined. He would persevere.”

As a young man, Molero bought vegetables in St. Bernard and sold them at a huge profit at the French Market in New Orleans. He bought a truck, then a second one, then a fleet that serviced dozens of New Orleans restaurants and grocers. When Prohibition came, it was only natural that he distribute whiskey—and he sent it even to Chicago.

In the fall of 1926, Perez and Meraux tried to take control of the trappng business from the Islenos. The trappers asked Molero for his help. The result was “the Trappers’ War.” Perez and Meraux sent a gunboat mounted with machine guns down to Delacroix. The trappers sank the gunboat, killed one deputy, and shot others. The governor refused Meraux’s request for help, and in fact became friendly with Molero. The trappers won the war. Meraux never filed any charges against them.

A few weeks later the rising river transformed them all, Meraux, Molero, Perez, and the trappers and fishermen and bootleggers, into allies.

ON MONDAY, APRIL 18, Garsaud and O’Keefe walked into an open hearing of the Mississippi River Commission. Immediately, it went into executive session. While O’Keefe remained silent, Gersaud explained their plan to dynamite the levee and create an emergency spillway near Poydras, the site of the 1922 break. Would the commission approve?

Colonel Charles Potter, commission president, went off the record, discussed the issues with his colleagues, hinted that they would approve if the emergency worsened, then back on the record formally replied that the commission could not even consider the request until three conditions were met. First, the War Department must approve. Second, the State of Louisiana would have to make the request. Third, the city would have to absolve the commission of any liability for damages and arrange to compensate victims of the crevasse fully for any and all losses.

Garsaud and O’Keefe, satisfied, boarded an overnight train to New Orleans. While they slept, a skiff carrying several men approached too close to the levee near Poydras. Guards opened fire. One man was killed, two others wounded. The New York Timesseemed to shrug: “Residents had been warned not to approach the levees after dark.” No New Orleans paper mentioned the killing in St. Bernard. Violence there was common anyway.

The next morning, April 19, the establishment of New Orleans gathered together in City Hall, a magnificent structure bedecked with columns designed by the city’s most famous architect, James Gallier. In the splendor of the city council chamber grimly sat the presidents of the Cotton Exchange, the Board of Trade, the Stock Exchange, the Dock Board, the Association of Commerce, the levee board, all the banks, the men who ran the newspapers, and a few individual business leaders. Only one councilman, Klorer, was present, along with the mayor and two congressmen. No representatives of St. Bernard and Plaquemines Parishes, which would be flooded by the proposed crevasse, were invited.

The meeting marked the beginning of an extraordinary week. It began with O’Keefe naming Butler chairman of an ad hoc Citizens Flood Relief Committee, comprised of all the private citizens present. This committee had no legal authority of any kind, but it, and Butler, would take charge of everything involving the flood and New Orleans from then on, including the effort to determine the policy of the United States government.

There was no discussion of the decision to dynamite the levee. It was simply assumed they would pursue that end. Before the week was out, both of Louisiana’s senators and several of its congressmen would do Butler’s bidding. Butler would even be authorized to sign one congressman’s name to any telegram, without checking with him first. O’Keefe also said that he, Pool, and H. Generes Dufour, the attorney for the Board of Liquidation and Hecht’s closest friend, would see Governor Oramel H. Simpson, whose reelection campaign was just getting under way.

On April 21, the crevasse at Mounds Landing made clear that the Mississippi River was sweeping everything before it, threatening to reclaim all of its natural floodplain.

The city reacted with panic. The Tribune declared on page 1: “Rumors! A rumor was circulated throughout the city that the newspapers of the city were not revealing the entire truth regarding the river and levee conditions; that news was being withheld from the public, that news was being censored. There is no truth in them, of course. The Morning Tribune and The Item are giving readers all the information they possess.” The Times-Picayune agreed: “There is no reason for alarm in New Orleans. Hundreds of false reports…circulated in New Orleans. Needless to say none of these was true. The Times-Picayune is…giving its readers as complete and accurate information as possible.”

But the newspapers were ignored. Every day hundreds of people were climbing the levee to see the river. It was angry, wide, high, and fast, swirling in whirlpools, the current sweeping logs, lumber, the bodies of mules and horses past. In some stretches it had risen higher than the levee and was contained by planks backed by thick walls of sandbags. The crest was at least two weeks away.

General Allison Owen, president of the Association of Commerce and a member of the Citizens Committee, publicly declared: “New Orleans is not affected in the slightest degree by the present high level of water in the Mississippi…New Orleans feels absolutely safe from any threat of flood from the river.” Privately, he worried, “We have never seen such a panic, such an amount of hysteria.”

THERE WAS ANOTHER response to the Mounds Landing crevasse as well. Even before it, the Red Cross had established refugee camps, set up a headquarters in Memphis, and transferred all its disaster personnel into the flooded regions. Yet the numbers of refugees—70,000 before Mounds Landing—the geographic reach of the flood, and the disruption of transportation created logistic problems far beyond its capacity to cope. Six governors had beseeched President Calvin Coolidge for help, but he had done nothing.

Now Coolidge had to act. At a cabinet meeting the morning after the crevasse, he named Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover chairman of a special committee of five cabinet secretaries to coordinate all rescue and relief efforts. Coolidge also gave Hoover authority to issue orders to the Army and Navy.

That was the situation when Thomson arrived in Washington. Despite the crisis, or because of it, he liked being there. It was home to him, more of a home than New Orleans. Here there was no Boston Club, no Louisiana Club, no Mardi Gras krewe. Here was a briar patch in which he could operate, in which many of his New Orleans peers would be lost.

Immediately after the morning cabinet meeting, Thomson presented the case for dynamiting the levee to Secretary of War Dwight Davis and Chief of Army Engineers General Edgar Jadwin. Jadwin resisted. He said levees upriver from the city would surely break, and predicted that the flood stage at New Orleans would not go above 22 or 23 feet “unless there were no further breaks.” The city’s levees could certainly hold such a stage.

Thomson persisted, citing the panic in the city and quoting Jadwin’s predecessor about blowing a hole in a levee. The city had counted on that commitment. Was the War Department now going back on its word? And what was the cost of blowing the levee? It would flood only marsh.

Finally Davis said if he received a formal request to dynamite the levee from the governor of Louisiana, and the federal government was absolved of any responsibility, he would look “sympathetically” upon it. Later that afternoon Thomson met with Coolidge personally and received a more ambiguous response. But it was good enough. He called Butler. Then Thomson headed back to New Orleans.

Early the next morning, Saturday, April 23, Hoover, Jadwin, and Red Cross acting chairman James Fieser departed for Memphis.

While newspapers and radio stations across the United States headlined Hoover’s appointment and the plight of Greenville, page 1 of Thomson’s Tribune recounted a censored version of his meetings with Coolidge, Davis, and Jadwin, not mentioning anything about dynamiting the levee. In St. Bernard people read between the lines. They increased to 500 the number of levee guards, enough to put an armed man every 300 yards twenty-four hours a day. They trusted no one.

TWENTY THOUSAND men were working on the levees between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Earlier, the Times-Picayune had reported the arrival of 640,000 sandbags in the city, supposedly enough to guarantee perfect protection. In an effort to reassure, it now reported the arrival of 6 million sandbags. The news did not reassure.

Business in New Orleans simply disappeared. The streets emptied. One national chain closed its eighteen stores in the city; its employees fled. Parents of out-of-town students at Tulane and Loyola ordered their children back home. Hotels emptied and closed off floors. Hospitals handled only life-threatening emergencies; otherwise they too were empty. The only activity was on the levee. Earlier, hundreds of people had come to the levee each day to see the river for themselves. Now thousands came.

In the Delta the waters were wreaking havoc. The Associated Press reported: “Maj. Allen said that a conservative estimate of the total drownings in the delta region was at least 200 with the possibility that the actual number would be considerably greater…. Property damage is estimated at $500,000,000.”

There was still a public show of confidence. Parham Werlein, a prominent figure on the Safe River Committee, insisted his sister-in-law remove a boat tied to her backyard porch, saying, “Do you know what people would think if you had a boat?”

ON SATURDAY, APRIL 23, an oceangoing molasses tanker rammed the levee on the west bank of the river at the Junior Plantation, forty-three miles below the city. The river began to pour through the break. In New Orleans, people only suspected sabotage. In St. Bernard and Plaquemines people were convinced of it. Levee guards tensed. A reporter and photographer traveling in a small boat down the river to examine the crevasse were fired upon repeatedly. They kept their heads literally down, below the gunwales, choosing to risk a collision with floating wreckage over being shot.

Thomson returned to New Orleans Sunday morning and went straight to Butler’s home on St. Charles Avenue to brief him on what had happened in Washington. Butler nodded approval, then called Dufour, whose family owned the tanker that had rammed the levee, for a report on Governor Simpson’s position.

Dufour lived a few blocks up St. Charles and came over with disheartening news. Simpson had come to the city on Friday and talked with Klorer, Garsaud, and state engineers. The engineers had presented their reasons for dynamiting the levee. Simpson had asked piercing questions, complained that their predictions of danger to New Orleans were valid only if upriver levees held, and demanded to know what they thought the chances of that were. Their answers had been evasive. Simpson had proved evasive himself, returning to Baton Rouge without seeing the delegation of Dufour, Pool, and Mayor O’Keefe.

On Saturday, Dufour had finally gotten the commander of the National Guard to convince Simpson to see them. The three New Orleans men had ridden the train to Baton Rouge and entered the governor’s mansion late Saturday night, just after a delegation of men from St. Bernard and Plaquemines left. Manuel Molero, who had won the trust of the governor, had complained of rumors of the plans to cut their levee. He had pleaded with Simpson not to allow it, not to sacrifice them. Simpson had listened carefully. An election was only a few months away. Flooding country people to save the city did not play well politically in rural Louisiana. Besides, there was something so foul about the idea of the government, which should be trying to protect people, destroying people’s livelihoods. The idea left a bad taste in Simpson’s mouth. O’Keefe, Pool, and Dufour could not convince him to agree to their plan.

Sunday morning their case weakened further when the New Orleans States quoted Isaac Cline, who stated that his prediction of flood height at New Orleans depended upon all levees above the city holding. He declared, “The possibility of danger to the city, with the proper precautions which are being taken, is very remote.” Simpson knew Cline’s history, knew that Cline would never underestimate the danger. Simpson considered Cline’s statement a near guarantee that natural crevasses would relieve the city.

Later in the day Simpson received reports that the Arkansas River levee near Pine Bluff, Arkansas, had washed out. The Arkansas was now rolling south like an invading army, and would soon inundate hundreds of thousands of acres of northern Louisiana. Then came reports that the Glasscock levee above Baton Rouge was already caving into the river, with the crest more than a week away. Both crevasses, while terrible news for Louisiana, would help relieve New Orleans; the failures of those levees also strongly suggested more crevasses would follow.

Butler, Thomson, and Dufour reviewed the situation. There was one politician in New Orleans whom Simpson trusted—Paul Maloney, a former city councilman who had lost the last mayoralty race. Butler considered him a mediocrity. But he needed him now. He called Maloney and told him what was required. Maloney immediately left for Baton Rouge, but soon reported that he could do nothing with Simpson, that Simpson clung to Cline’s assessment that danger was “remote,” and refused to approve dynamiting the levee.

Cline had become key. Pool knew Cline well; they shared the same tastes in art. Butler asked Pool to call him. Cline later remembered: “Pool pleaded with me to go to Governor Simpson. I told Mr. Pool that I did not consider New Orleans in danger from overflow.”

Pool persisted, arguing that the panic in the city and threatened confidence in its safety was every bit as deadly as the river itself. Cline refused to help and hung up.

Pool called back. Didn’t Cline worry about “the mass psychology of fear” in the city? Of course he did. But he couldn’t lie. He couldn’t compromise the integrity of his office. Pool argued that he had the future of the city in his hands. He could save it. And what if he was wrong? The risk to life would be tremendous. Was he so certain of his predictions as that? Cline told Pool to let him think about it and hung up again.

“I knew the levees could not carry the flood waters as far as New Orleans,” Cline later explained. “However, the levees were under another branch of Government service and I could not say what the flood would do to the levees. I could only say ‘If the levees hold the volume of water now in sight.’”

He called Pool back and said, “You may go to Governor Simpson and tell him that I say there is another rise in the river on the way here and that if the levee is going to be opened to relieve the situation it should be opened at once.”

MALONEY CARRIED THIS MESSAGE to Simpson. Simpson had been relying on Cline but could no longer. And, only a few hours earlier, he had received a confidential memo circulated by hand because, the memo stated, it was “too confidential and alarming to telephone or telegraph.” It reported that the Mississippi River Commission expected the water from Mounds Landing to “flow back into the river at Vicksburg. It will swing against the Louisiana levees opposite Vicksburg, and 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.” But if this expected break did not occur, the commission was “genuinely alarmed about the fate of New Orleans.”

Maloney asked Simpson how he could take any risk with the city of New Orleans. Nearly half a million people there were at the river’s mercy.

It was Sunday night. The day had seemed endless. Although Simpson had yet to agree, Butler had just sent Thomson and Garsaud to Vicksburg to meet the members of the Mississippi River Commission there and ask formal permission to dynamite the levee.

Meanwhile, Butler, Hecht, and Dufour were waiting for news in the solarium of Butler’s home. It was modest compared to Hecht’s home on Audubon Place, and smaller than Dufour’s a few blocks away. Hecht and Dufour, both sharp and inquisitive men, traded quips. They were often together, each the other’s closest friend. Butler sat, humorless, not participating.

Finally, near midnight, Maloney called from the governor’s mansion to say Simpson would agree to the dynamiting of the levee, under certain conditions. He would require in writing: first, a definitive statement signed by engineers that the dynamiting of the levee was absolutely necessary, and there could be no equivocating language about “if the levees hold”; second, legal opinions that he had the authority to order the levee dynamited; third, written promises from the city of New Orleans to compensate victims for all losses.

Butler immediately agreed to all conditions. Simpson, who did not get on the phone, said he would be in the city late the next day, Monday. Butler got busy. With Hecht and Dufour he called upon other men, men of the city’s establishment. The city, they believed, depended upon them.

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