THE MOMENT OF DECISION, the moment before which contemplation had been possible, had come earlier, when Butler had allowed the process to go forward. Since then Butler and those with him had been in continuous motion, and, in motion, Butler had never reconsidered. Now he and the others began pushing to the inevitable conclusion, using all their powers. They had the power of panic. They had the power of money. They had the power of caste. They had the power of the times, when it was believed that men with money not only knew better than others but acted better.
Rumors spread about the plan for dynamiting. It barely kept pace with the fear. On Monday, April 25, the Red Cross asked every nurse to register. A sand boil erupted at the Oak Street levee uptown. At Dumaine Street in the French Quarter, the river began seeping through the levee. The same day, the first break on a Red River levee occurred, further suggesting that New Orleans would be relieved by breaks upriver. In St. Bernard more guards were added.
In New Orleans, for three hours Monday morning Dufour sat in his office with Esmond Phelps, J. Blanc Monroe and his partner Monte Lemann, and two other prominent attorneys; together they drafted a legal opinion to compel the governor to dynamite the levee. They also wrote a separate opinion for Percy Saint, attorney general of Louisiana, to give to Simpson.
Klorer was busy preparing a formal statement of engineers to give Simpson, to be signed by himself, Garsaud, Colonel William Wooten, an Army engineer, and George Schoenberger, chief of the three-man board of state engineers. One of the three state engineers protested that dynamiting the levee would be a “hysterical” and “simply ridiculous” act, and complained that New Orleans was in no danger and that the state engineers were caving in to pressure. He was kept from Simpson, and no newspaper ever quoted him.
In Vicksburg, Thomson and Garsaud met with the Mississippi River Commission onboard the commission’s boat, said they represented “all the interests” of the city, and formally requested approval to cut the levee. Colonel Potter asked them to go into the back cabin. Then in private he somberly told his fellow commission members he would “prefer to wait” to see whether the expected crevasses relieved the city, but to refuse permission now that the request had been made would truly panic the city. They had to approve “for the psychological effect.”
Potter then called Thomson and Garsaud back and handed them a wire to send to Simpson, with a copy to Butler: “In order to avoid the loss of life and property incidental to…an accidental break along the levee line, the Commission believes that it is advisable to create a break in the levee at a predetermined point or points in the State of Louisiana selected by the Governor of the State, or by his authorized agents.”
Garsaud returned to New Orleans. Thomson remained in Vicksburg to see Hoover and Jadwin, who were coming downriver and would arrive the next day.
AT SEVEN O’CLOCK that evening Governor Simpson, Butler, Hecht, Dufour, Maloney, and Garsaud met in Butler’s office at the Canal Bank. No representative of the city government was present. Butler laid before Simpson the documents—the legal and engineering opinions that the action was necessary, the wire from the river commission, a pledge to reimburse victims—he had requested.
Then they walked out of Butler’s office into the bank’s boardroom. There Mayor O’Keefe and fifty of the wealthiest men in the city waited, crowding the long mahogany table and crammed in chairs lining the wall. It was fitting that they met there rather than in City Hall. Simpson called the meeting to order, but there was no pretense about who was in charge. It was Butler.
Simpson was grimly formal, surrounded by men who controlled New Orleans and who were demonstrating that they controlled the rest of the state as well. He began to read aloud each document in its entirety. It took him almost an hour to read them, his voice punctuated by an occasional cough, the silence of his audience broken by the sound of a chair shifting or a match being struck or a man leaning backward. It was as if it mattered to say all the words, as if it would make these men understand. But they already understood.
Butler had invited two men to this meeting to represent St. Bernard and Plaquemines. He had not invited Molero, or Meraux, or Perez. Instead, the two men were John Dymond, Jr., and Simon Leopold, men of wealth and position. Their lands lay in the two parishes, but they were not truly of them. Indeed, Dymond belonged to the Boston Club. When Simpson finished, Dymond spoke up. If the levee needed to be cut, he argued, it should be cut above New Orleans. There the cut would relieve the most pressure, and there men were expending immense energies to save the levees. To destroy those levees required no dynamite; if they simply ceased trying to save them, the river would take care of the rest. The water would flow harmlessly into Lake Pontchartrain. Wasn’t that morally better than sacrificing St. Bernard and Plaquemines, especially if the sacrifice turned out to be unnecessary?
But all the weight of the room, all the money and power in the room, pressed against Dymond. And he was one of them, only protesting for form. He well knew that the land upriver was far more developed, and a flood there would cause far more expensive damage. The city was not prepared to promise reimbursement for such an amount. The decision had already been made. Dymond asked at least for a written guarantee that damages would be paid.
“We can certainly do that,” Butler said. “Write it, and we will all sign it.”
Dymond and Leopold left the room. The fifty men remaining in the boardroom waited uncomfortably. Some sat at the table, silent. Others stood in groups of three or four, assuring each other that they were doing the right thing.
Twenty minutes later Dymond and Leopold returned with a resolution, and read it aloud. It stipulated three things. First, signatories “pledge ourselves to the people of the parishes of Plaquemines and St. Bernard to use our good offices in seeing that they are reimbursed by proper governmental agencies, the losses which they may sustain as a result of this emergency work.” Second, it proposed a five-member commission to decide all reparations issues. The governor would appoint two members; the New Orleans City Council would appoint two; and the Lake Borgne Levee Board would appoint one. Third, it created a fund of $150,000 to care for the refugees.
Butler agreed quickly. The victims would get only one of five votes on the board to determine damages; the city would get two. The fund of $150,000 guaranteed less than $20 to each refugee for the destruction of his or her home, property, and livelihood. After the river went through, there would be nothing left.
The governor signed first, followed by the mayor and the president of the Orleans Levee Board; then Butler, president of the Canal Bank; Hecht, president of the Hibernia Bank; then the presidents of the other banks. Fifty-seven men signed their names to the pledge. Only six—the governor, the mayor, two councilmen, and two levee board members—were public officials. None of the officials belonged to the Boston Club. They did not have the power.
Of the fifty-one other signatories, thirty-five were members of the Boston Club. Of the sixteen who were not, most—like Edgar Stern, president of the New Orleans Cotton Exchange and son-in-law of Julius Rosenwald, who built Sears into one of the world’s largest businesses—were Jews, who could not belong. The five attorneys who signed the legal opinion given to the governor and who lived in New Orleans were even more select. Three of the five reigned over Carnival as Comus; the fourth reigned as Rex; the fifth, Monte Lemann, was Jewish and could not participate in Carnival.
Butler handed Simpson a previously prepared telegram addressed to the Honorable Dwight F. Davis, Secretary of War, with copies to Colonel Charles L. Potter, President of the Mississippi River Commission, and General Edgar Jadwin, Chief of Engineers, United States Army. It read: “I have before me copy of a resolution adopted by the Mississippi River Commission at a meeting of the Commission held at Vicksburg, Mississippi, today, recommending that a break be created in the levee at some predetermined point selected by me…. I concur in the views and recommendations of the Commission…[and] hereby request and solicit the cooperation and assistance of the Mississippi River Commission, the Chief of Engineers, and the Secretary of War in the accomplishment of this imperative…. Your immediate approval and cooperation are requested. Time is a vital element.”
Late that evening, April 25, Simpson sent the wire.
TUESDAY MORNING, April 26, the morning after 51 respectable men of New Orleans had pressured the governor to agree to dynamite the St. Bernard levee, another meeting was held at Braithwaite, a small gritty village in the lee of the levee near the St. Bernard-Plaquemines line. The village had a pulp mill, a post office, a seafood canning plant, a general store, and a baseball field and stands. Almost 600 men packed the stands. Most were trappers. A few months earlier, they were prepared to kill each other. Now they had a common enemy.
One man rose and demanded: “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.” Another yelled, “Let’s sleep on our shotguns.”
Then Meraux stood. He wore knee-high laced boots, olive-drab riding breeches, a khaki shirt, and a Colt six-shooter. Standing there a physical giant, hands on his hips, elbows out, looking impregnable and impassable, he waited for silence. When it came, he spoke calmly. He told them that he sympathized with them and respected their willingness to fight, but warned, “The levees will be broken even if they have to use force of arms to do it.” He read a statement from the commander of the Louisiana 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 United States soldiers, and we will brook no interference whatsoever from the citizens of these parishes.’” Manuel Molero, representing the Lake Borgne Levee Board, had tried to convince the governor and the Mississippi River Commission to block the dynamiting. He had failed. Fighting would stop nothing, only add dead men to the loss of property. But they could damn well make sure New Orleans paid.
Meraux did not say that Blanc Monroe, with whom he had had many business dealings, would be handling the claims for New Orleans.
He did say that he knew those people, and all their talk of the moral obligation of New Orleans wasn’t worth a pile of pigshit. This guarantee of $150,000 was pigshit. Now what they all needed to do was name a committee “to see that we get proper compensation for our property.”
Then Perez spoke. “New Orleans is not giving us a square deal,” he said. “They have been plotting this action for the past few weeks without giving us due consideration and getting in touch with the proper officials here.” The preceding night, the New Orleans bankers had met and picked two men they wanted to speak for St. Bernard and Plaquemines, Dymond and Leopold. “They didn’t want our committee there! They didn’t even want the railroad interests there!…This agreement has been signed by members of the Association of Commerce and by New Orleans business and bank representatives…. Our levees will be broken by the militia against our will. We have the right to full compensation!”
The mass meeting named a committee to go to New Orleans. Perez was on it, and Meraux had his real estate partner and three of his political puppets named. Molero could not understand English well enough to contend directly with New Orleans bankers and lawyers and was not on it, but his bootlegging partner was.
The men at Braithwaite also sent two wires. One went to the secretary of war: “The citizens and taxpayers of St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes, in mass meeting assembled, hereby protest to the United States War Department against the granting of any permit for the cutting of the levee below New Orleans and that the necessary relief to the problem of the city of New Orleans be secured by allowing the weak points in the levee above the city of New Orleans, where great and expensive efforts are being made to prevent these breaks, to be washed out with the natural consequences following at these points.”
The second wire went to Butler—not to the mayor or the governor—“vigorously protest[ing] against the action taken towards cutting the levee…without informing [us] of such steps and against utterly insufficient provision for compensation in full for personal and property damages.”
BUTLER READ THE WIRE with concern and informed O’Keefe, who dispatched 350 men—thugs used by ward leaders, not police—armed with rifles and riot guns to guard the New Orleans levee. The possibility of preemptive sabotage was real.
Butler also had a more formal concern. The governor so far had only asked the federal government’s approval. He had issued no order to blow the levee. If St. Bernard and Plaquemines complained loudly enough, he might refuse. The committee named at the mass meeting had to be placated.
That afternoon, April 26, Perez and the others from St. Bernard and Plaquemines sat down with Simpson in the boardroom of the Marine Bank. Pool, the bank’s president; Butler; Hecht; Dufour; and three others also attended. As they talked, pieces of the Glasscock levee above Baton Rouge were caving into the Mississippi River. If it gave way, the Mississippi’s waters would pour west and south over the land, reaching the Gulf through the Atchafalaya basin. This would relieve New Orleans.
The St. Bernard representatives knew nothing of the Glasscock situation. They demanded a legally binding pledge of reparations and scoffed at the $150,000 fund. It insulted every citizen of the two parishes and mocked the credibility of the promise of full compensation. Butler suggested the delegation from New Orleans withdraw to consider the request.
Butler and the other bankers gathered in Pool’s office. Together they epitomized the establishment of the city, and of both the Old and New South. The Old South supposedly meant honor. The New South meant money. Butler straddled the two worlds, the world of earth and honor and myth, and the world of money and reality. Hecht belonged only to the latter.
They spent an hour developing a new proposal, one far more honorable. When they returned to the boardroom, Butler spoke. He could offer no legal guarantee beyond that of the preceding night. There was no procedural vehicle to do so given the emergency. But, he emphasized sternly and formally, “The relief to be afforded is a moral obligation undertaken by each and every person at the meeting held on Monday night, as evidenced by their signed obligation to that effect.”
The pledge had been signed by the governor, the mayor, the presidents of the New Orleans Board of Trade, the New Orleans Stock Exchange, the New Orleans Cotton Exchange, the Association of Commerce, and each of the city’s banks. They had made this pledge not only to the citizens of the lower parishes, but to the United States government. He had given his word, personally, as well.
But he agreed that the $150,000 was grossly inadequate. New Orleans banks would provide instead a fund of $2 million, to be loaned by New Orleans banks to those in need prior to settlement of any claims. The loans would be repaid by deducting them from the reparation settlements. The city would pay the interest.
Perez and the others knew Butler, knew his reputation, knew his standing. He had never been accused, as Hecht had, of sharp practices. Perhaps they would not have accepted the word of anyone else present, but they accepted his.
They had one other demand. They refused to accept as an arbiter of reparations the commission agreed to the preceding night. This commission was to have only one member from the two lower parishes, and two from New Orleans. They would accept only a nine-member commission; the governor would appoint two members, the city would appoint three, and four would come from the lower parishes. Butler instantly agreed.
At 3:30 P.M., Tuesday, April 26, the representatives of St. Bernard and Plaquemines reluctantly accepted the arrangements. Perez said: “What else can we do? There seems to be nothing else to do but get the people out of the affected area to refugee camps…[and] submit peacefully to the sacrifice.”
But the deed was not yet done.
IN WASHINGTON, Memphis, and elsewhere much of the story had leaked out. By now the flood filled the front pages of virtually every newspaper in America, from the Morning Oregonian in Portland, Oregon, to the Press Herald of Portland, Maine, from the Deseret News in Salt Lake City to the Richmond (Virginia) Times-Dispatch, from the Los Angeles Times to the Boston Globe.
Radio stations outside New Orleans were broadcasting bits and pieces of the truth. Inside the city rumors circulated through the business community, then spread beyond into the city at large. The levee had been dynamited already. The levee had burst. The New Orleans levees were caving in. The trappers had shot Butler. The entire city trembled with uncertainty and fear. But the New Orleans newspapers and radio stations stayed silent, giving out no information.
BUTLER, SIMPSON, HECHT, and the other New Orleans men reassembled in the boardroom of the Canal Bank. Shortly after 4 P.M., a wire from the secretary of war reached Simpson there, stating that the approval of General Jadwin, chief of engineers was needed. Butler immediately wired Thomson at the Carroll Hotel in Vicksburg: “Everything is set here to act on receipt of General Jadwin’s approval. Tension is terrific. City badly upset for lack of news while incomplete reports coming in by radio. Governor Simpson urges General Jadwin communicate his approval earliest possible minute. Address Governor care of myself, Canal Bank Directors’ Room.”
Two and a half hours after sending Thomson the wire, Butler, Hecht, the governor, the mayor, and a dozen other men still waited in the boardroom for news. They were all exhausted. At six-thirty Butler suggested they break for dinner and return in an hour.
In Vicksburg, Thomson was not simply waiting. He knew Jadwin and Hoover were aboard the Mississippi River Commission steamer Control, so he chartered a speedboat, and, accompanied by Colonel Potter, head of the river commission, Louisiana Senator Joe Ransdell, Representative James O’Connor of New Orleans, and Louisiana Representative Riley Wilson, ranking member of the House Flood Control Committee, he headed upriver to meet them. Ten miles above Vicksburg, they found them. Thomson and the others climbed aboard.
Hoover, taller and better-looking than he appeared in photographs, with a sharp tongue and a penetrating mind, was in charge. He welcomed the party to a set of deck chairs laid out along the stern. But as soon as Thomson began to explain his mission, Hoover grimaced, muttered a curse, and rose. It was too dirty for him. “I have nothing to do with this,” he said, walking away. “That’s General Jadwin’s responsibility.”
Thomson made his presentation. Jadwin said he would “not object.” That was all Thomson needed. The instant the steamer docked, he sent word all was settled. Then a press report quoted Coolidge denying he had authority to cut the levee. Thomson, Hoover, and Jadwin knew of it. The news was kept from Simpson. No one made any effort to contact Coolidge for clarification; they feared the answer.
At seven-thirty, when the men in the Canal boardroom returned from dinner, they were greeted with Thomson’s wire. Still, Simpson refused to issue an order. The room hissed with contained hostility. It was clear Simpson did not want to do this thing. Butler called Vicksburg, tracked Thomson down at his hotel, and told him that the governor demanded an explicit statement directly from Jadwin. They needed it immediately. The city had never been so tense.
An hour and a half later Thomson called back. Jadwin was standing beside him, he said, and was sending a wire addressed to the governor at his official residence in Baton Rouge. But Jadwin refused to get on the phone, explaining, “I wish to confine my responsibility strictly to the terms as written.”
Thomson read to Butler and Simpson, “The Mississippi River Commission and Chief of Engineers interpose no objection to a creation of a temporary break in the Mississippi River levee near the site of the old Poydras crevasse…for this emergency only.” The two Louisiana congressmen got on the phone and confirmed the accuracy of Thomson’s reading. Jadwin, though standing beside them, still refused to speak.
Butler, Hecht, O’Keefe, and the others in the room looked coldly at Simpson. He hesitated, but he no longer had any justification to refuse to issue the order—other than his own judgment. How much of this, he perhaps wondered, was over interest rates on city bonds, and how much over real concern for the city. But he would interpose no objection himself. He signed the order that had already been prepared.
It was 9:45 P.M., Tuesday. The levee would be dynamited at noon Friday.
NEAR MIDNIGHT Meraux met with the National Guard commander at Jackson Barracks, located on the Orleans-St. Bernard parish line. Worried that sabotage was still possible and that in that event New Orleans would pay nothing, Meraux pleaded with the commander to send out more levee guards. Leon Sarpy, then a young soldier and later rumored to be Comus, recalls with contempt, “He was on bended knee.”
Molero was in Delacroix Island, urging peace. The power against them was too great. This was not like the Trappers War. They could stop nothing. They could only die, and kill.
HUNDREDS OF MILES upriver levees were bursting and 200,000 people were homeless. The rivers were still swelling.
In New Orleans at noon the next day, Klorer, Garsaud, and the state engineers met to pick the precise spot to place the dynamite. A gauntlet of national reporters gathered outside the room. The chief state engineer promised to make the site public, but when they emerged, Garsaud snapped at reporters, “We will not reveal our plans until they are carried out in view of the possibility of trouble in carrying them out should they become known.”
The New Orleans Clearing House Association approved the $2 million fund Butler had promised, and sent O’Keefe a resolution it wanted the city council to adopt guaranteeing the banks against any loss. The council adopted it without discussion or change.
New Orleans was finally calming. Perhaps the city would have been safe without dynamiting the levee. But its reputation would not have been. The city’s business leaders began a tremendous public relations effort emphasizing the safety of New Orleans.
The Dock Board, headed by Hecht, announced that “the high water should not materially interfere with the commerce of the port.” Thomson’s Tribune declared: “Trade Shows Flood Scare Has Passed…Business in the city after a few days decline resumed normalcy. Local stocks rebounded from 2 to 4 pts.” Butler sent a wire to his correspondent banks: “Contrary to disquieting rumors…New Orleans is absolutely free of Mississippi River flood water…. Some of our people have been unduly alarmed but decision of Mississippi River Commission to cut levee twelve miles below New Orleans has removed all danger to city and business and all other activities are moving along in normal manner. New Orleans never has been flooded by Mississippi River and in our judgment never will be…. J. P. Butler.”
He sent a copy of his wire to every other New Orleans bank and dozens of the city’s businessmen, saying: “I would suggest you send a similar telegram to your principal business connections…. This is important to help correct the unfavorable publicity that has already gone out.”
THAT NIGHT more than twenty men from St. Bernard visited the city, broke into smaller groups, and made several stops. One was at the home of Pool. They rang the doorbell. A servant answered, then came to the dining room quaking, saying seven men were at the door with shotguns. Pool told his family, “Don’t any of you move.” He left the room and talked to the men. They had come to threaten him. They were visiting all the bankers who had promised to deal honestly with the people whose homes would be destroyed. The men standing in Pool’s foyer with guns said they would make sure those promises were kept. Their voices were angry, Pool’s calm. But he returned to dinner shaken.
ON THURSDAY, April 28, Hoover rode down the river with Garsaud to examine the site chosen for dynamiting the next day. Their launch was flying the U.S. flag and that of the Corps of Engineers. On the levee a man squatted down and opened fire with a rifle. Hoover and Garsaud ducked low. The man fled.
A few miles downriver Hoover and Garsaud stood on the roof of the pilothouse reviewing maps, then Garsaud, waving maps in both hands and pointing, signaled to newspaper correspondents aboard an accompanying boat, “That’s where it will take place.”
The site was named Caernarvon, thirteen miles below Canal Street, three-quarters of a mile below the Poydras crevasse of 1922.
FRIDAY, APRIL 29, was like a holiday in the city of New Orleans. In St. Bernard and Plaquemines people were angry and frightened, but resigned. The preceding two days refugees had trudged out of the lower parishes as if leaving a war zone. The National Guard and every major retail store in the city sent trucks and vans to evacuate the 10,000 residents. Trucks were piled high with everything movable. Most of the refugees moved in with relatives in New Orleans, or Gulfport, or the part of St. Bernard—including Meraux’s home—that would not go underwater. For those with nowhere else, the city designated the huge warehouse of the International Trade Exchange, known as the Intrex, as a refugee center. Whites had the fifth floor, blacks the sixth. Almost immediately, the city began treating the people as charity cases, patronizing them.
Airplanes flew in circles over the area to be flooded searching for stragglers and taking photographs. The photos were Blanc Monroe’s idea. Butler had insisted he represent the city regarding reparations. Butler had chosen well. No one took advantage of Monroe. After the flood, few buildings in the region would remain standing. The aerial photographs would document what had stood there before, and prevent claimants from exaggerating their losses.
The two parishes became increasingly desolate and empty. Delacroix Island was empty, its homes deserted, the shelves of the grocery stores empty. In Violet, where deputies had ambushed Claude Meraux’s whiskey shipment and died for their efforts, the buildings stood solemn and empty. At Braithwaite, where the baseball bleachers had held the mass meeting three days before, the only sounds were those of the birds.
NEW ORLEANS meanwhile was enjoying itself. The fine families, as if on a picnic, traveled down to see the great explosion that would send dirt hundreds of feet high and create a sudden Niagara Falls. Cars jammed the road down to St. Bernard, and yachts crowded the river.
But not just anyone could witness the explosion. It required an official permit. The men who had decided to dynamite the levee controlled those permits. Residents of St. Bernard could not witness the destruction of the levee, and their parish. As New Orleans writer Lyle Saxon noted: “Only the privileged with their official permits could pass the National Guard…. They came in automobiles, boats, and aeroplanes, eager for the big show.”
The national and New Orleans media were there, of course. Every newsreel producer in the country had cameras present. Reporters, several hundred in all, from Memphis, from Houston and Dallas, from Washington, from New York, from Baton Rouge and St. Louis, were there as well. Practically every daily newspaper in the country would run the story on the front page, from Alaska to Florida. But no representative of the St. Bernard Voice was allowed a pass.
BUTLER DID NOT GO to the site of the explosion himself. He was too busy. At 2 P.M. in the Canal Bank boardroom he met with twenty-five men who would care for the refugees. Butler of course chaired the meeting. The St. Bernard refugees would need housing, food, and jobs for several months. The water would not be off their land until July at the earliest. Then the land would be empty of everything except caking, fetid mud.
Simultaneously, in Thomson’s office the Emergency Clearing House Publicity Committee met. It planned the distribution of copies of Butler’s statement about the city’s safety to 2,100 banks and businesses around the country. It also scheduled regular broadcasts of Army engineers stating that the city was now entirely safe. One member reported that the Pathé newsreel company had pledged to “be very careful in handling all New Orleans pictures”; the International News Reel Company had promised to “cooperate to the fullest extent.” The committee was squeezing even national news organizations into boxes. New Orleans was doing well indeed.
AT NOON, the time scheduled for the explosion, Army, National Guard, and police motorcyclists dashed about while planes circled overhead. Chaos reigned. The crowds were pushed back, then pushed farther back. They waited, then waited more. Finally, word came that the entire area was clear, that the planes had spotted no one in the lower parishes. The hundreds who had come for the show tensed. At two-seventeen the first explosion occurred.
The earth of the levee heaved, then settled. A ditch 10 feet deep and 6 feet wide opened, through which waters began to move slowly.
Two more explosions followed with little effect. Workers used picks and shovels to increase the water flow. Divers went below the river surface to lay more charges. Finally, a reasonable flow developed, but it was no monster crevasse. The dense earth of the levee mockingly recalled Humphreys, who had called the “hard blue clay” of the river bottom impervious to erosion. Much of that clay was in these levees. The crowds went away disappointed. Dynamiting would continue over the next ten days. In all, 39 tons of dynamite would be used, ultimately creating a flow of 250,000 cubic feet of water per second.
While waiting for the first explosion, Meraux had stood on the levee in his laced boots and riding breeches with his revolver in his holster, talking quietly to a group of reporters. “We’re letting ’em do it because we can’t stop ’em,” he said. “You can’t fight the Government. I have a hell of a time trying to get my people to see that. A lot of them don’t see it yet. They wanted to tell the state of Louisiana to come ahead and cut the levee—but it would be cut over their dead bodies first. We managed to talk them out of that for their own good…. And we haven’t got a line in writing of any guarantee that we’re going to get anything back.”
He had only the public expressions from southern gentlemen of their moral obligation. As the explosion sounded, Meraux flinched, then turned around and said, “Gentlemen, you have seen today the public execution of this parish.”
THE DAY AFTER the initial dynamiting, the Glasscock levee on the west bank of the Mississippi gave way, easing pressure on New Orleans levees. Simultaneously, the Weather Bureau warned that “the greatest flood of record” was in prospect the following week for the Ouachita and Black Rivers. Cline, as usual, did not say all he believed, that levees along these rivers would not hold, and their waters would never reach the Mississippi River. They would instead cover the land and roll, like the water from the Glasscock gap, through the Atchafalaya basin to the Gulf. As Kemper and Cline had predicted, the destruction of St. Bernard and Plaquemines was unnecessary. One day’s wait would have shown it to be so.