Modern history


THE APRIL 22 CABINET MEETING in which Coolidge named Hoover head of the flood effort adjourned at lunch. Two hours later Hoover sat down in his office with the other cabinet secretaries involved, American Red Cross vice chairman James Fieser, and senior staff. Hoover had rivalries with nearly everyone present. Davis, the secretary of war, was a potential presidential candidate and also resented Coolidge having given Hoover authority to issue orders directly to the Army. Secretary of Treasury Andrew Mellon was far larger than Hoover in the world outside Washington and scoffed at his ideas. And Hoover had repeatedly tried to usurp the power of several secretaries of agriculture. Hoover ignored these rivalries now; this meeting had purpose. Even while everyone was taking their seats, he demanded a report on the situation.

DeWitt Smith of the Red Cross gave it. Exactly one week earlier, as reports had come in of the extraordinary rains, senior Red Cross officials had gathered late at night to plan for a disaster. Quickly they had concluded that they could handle the crisis in Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, and Tennessee. But the most likely scenario in Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana would be beyond their capabilities. There would be 200,000 refugees at a minimum. If other levees broke, as expected, the number of refugees could rise above 500,000.

Hoover turned to Davis, who reported gloomily, “The Army Engineers believe nothing can be done to stop further breaks in the levees, and flood conditions will grow worse hourly.”

They had defined the problem. Hoover quickly shifted the discussion to organization. The Red Cross had set up a headquarters in Memphis. Smith asked that each government department appoint a senior liaison person with direct access to the secretary. Done. Hoover went further, soon wiring to Henry Baker, the Red Cross relief director in Memphis, authority “to use such government equipment as necessary and charter any private property needed.”

Finally came money. The Army, Davis said, had already spent $1 million with no way to recoup it. The Red Cross had a highly developed fund-raising apparatus. Davis suggested that the president set a specific target and ask for donations from the nation. Five million dollars was agreed upon as the initial goal, although all present knew it would be insufficient and a second call would have to be issued.

Meanwhile, a special train, including a railroad car for reporters, was being put together by the Illinois Central. As soon as it was ready, Hoover, Fieser, and Jadwin left for Memphis on it. They would arrive at 7 A.M. Jadwin would stay in the flooded region only briefly, but Hoover and Fieser would spend weeks there together, sleeping more than half their nights on a boat or train.

FROM THE FIRST, Hoover’s plans went beyond simply rescuing and maintaining hundreds of thousands of people. Enormous as that task would be, he intended to rebuild the region after it was devastated. Any more personal ambitions would be taken care of by the stories written and broadcast by the railroad car full of reporters. Hoover and Fieser both understood how useful the reporters would prove to all of their respective purposes. They jointly alerted all Red Cross personnel: “In the course of the next few weeks many representatives of magazines, newspapers, and feature syndicate companies will be in the flood area…. [G]ive these writers every possible cooperation.”

Fieser separately wired Washington headquarters: “Essential push all publicity angles next week or ten days for sake of financial drive”; “Secretary Hoover is magnetic center of publicity. Wire us currently anything useful for release by Secretary in interviews enroute”; “Keep us informed all fact matter with publicity value”; “Get pictures of Coast Guard and other boats flying Red Cross flags. Send them immediately to Douglas Griesemer, Director of Publicity, Red Cross, Wash., D.C. Also suggest similar photography by news photographers.”

Hoover’s staff, particularly George Akerson, fed the stories and photographs to reporters accompanying Hoover. Simultaneously, Commerce Department staff in Washington assembled clips from hundreds of newspapers and wired them to Akerson. Together, Akerson and the Washington staff would create a potent publicity machine.

Hoover himself concentrated on business. From the moment he got off the train in Memphis, he sought only people who could give him information. At first, there was chaos. For days Henry Baker had been fielding frantic calls for aid. He had worked sixty straight hours in an empty office building put at his disposal. Carpenters, electricians, and telephone and telegraph technicians had banged hammers around him. The day of the Mounds Landing break Army liaison officers had arrived from each of four Army corps located in the South and Midwest. Supplies were arriving as well. Baker was being drowned in detail. Finally, a Memphis banker cleaned up the lines of communication by arranging for men in forty towns to wire daily reports on conditions in their regions.

They still had the immense problem of distributing supplies and services throughout the flooded region. Baker recommended to Hoover and Fieser that they centralize policy but decentralize execution. If they put each county Red Cross chapter in charge of relief in its area, they would save money on administration, speed reaction time, and strengthen the Red Cross by building up local chapters. Chapters already existed in most counties. Generally, they were chaired by prominent men, such men as, in Greenville, LeRoy Percy’s son William Alexander Percy. And in case of scandal Baker pointed out decentralizing would put responsibility “squarely on the local community and not the national organization…. Therefore, criticism may be localized very definitely.”

Hoover and Fieser immediately concurred, and Hoover streamlined things more. Red tape disappeared. Representatives from every federal agency, from the Army to the Public Health Service, and several governors soon sat near Baker’s desk. When Baker needed something, he called to the appropriate man, who took care of it. Thirty yards away a Red Cross purchasing agent conducted a nearly continuous reverse auction; he stood on a platform and shouted out supplies and quantities needed, and dozens of suppliers shouted back bids. Four days after the Memphis headquarters opened, it had already outgrown its space; on April 24 the Red Cross moved into an enormous Ford Motor Company automobile assembly plant.

Hoover stayed away from the headquarters, instead receiving a train of visitors in his suite at the Peabody Hotel where he dealt with the larger picture. Connolly, the Army engineer in charge of the Memphis district, had pinned a map to the wall. The Memphis mayor had assigned Hoover two homicide detectives to find and bring to him whomever he wanted to see. To ease coordination with the Red Cross, Hoover also told the governors of Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana to create state flood relief commissions headed by a single “dictator” with authority over all state resources. Each governor did. In Louisiana, Hoover told the governor to name John Parker, who had served under Hoover during the war as a regional food administrator. Parker was named. The Arkansas dictator was Harvey Couch, who headed the Arkansas Power & Light Company. Mississippi’s flood czar was L. O. Crosby, a lumberman with few ties to the Delta. But he had made a fortune and, like Hoover, wanted a place at a bigger table; he was bankrolling Murphree’s reelection campaign, asked him for the job, and got it. Crosby would soon become one of Hoover’s most obsequious supporters.

Next, with a few phone calls, Hoover convinced railroads—the Illinois Central, the Missouri Pacific, the Texas Pacific, the Southern, the Frisco—to provide free transportation for refugees and cut rates on freight during the emergency. They also fed Baker’s operation information about the contents of each boxcar, so one or more cars could be cut out of any train and sent where needed.

Order finally began to emerge. Meanwhile, Hoover began assembling a rescue fleet. In the Delta the rescue operation had long since begun.

THE FORCE of the Mounds Landing break, if not the break itself, had stunned the entire Delta. The water pouring through it rooted out, undermined, and collapsed buildings, trees, railroad embankments, rose over them, washed them out. Water poured over even Egypt Ridge, named because no flood had ever risen above it.

Literally tens of thousands of people, wet and exhausted, were clinging to trees or sitting on rooftops. All waited for boats. They waited in danger and misery. It was unseasonably cold, penetratingly cold. Some died of exposure.

The storms continued. Gales turned the entire flooded region into an angry sea, churning with filthy brown foam. As far as one could see were rolling whitecaps, a sight foreign and terrifying to planters and sharecroppers alike. Waves pounded against buildings, currents ate at their foundations, the combined force sweeping them away. From the river for sixty miles east and ninety miles south spread the sea.

There were few boats. In the entire city of Greenville there were only thirty-five bateaux—double-ended, flat-bottomed boats—a few skiffs, and a handful of motors. Only six people in Greenville had an outboard motor, and elsewhere in the Delta they were even rarer. But what boats and motors existed quickly arrived, volunteered and driven by their owners; the rest were commandeered. The first rescue boat left the city soon after the break, and independent of any organization. The fastest boats with the best motors came from Arkansas, up the White River. They belonged to bootleggers who swooped down the Mississippi, lifted their boats over the levee, and spread out into the ocean the Delta had become. From Memphis came Dr. Louis Leroy, who owned, and raced, perhaps the single fastest speedboat on the river. From the Gulf Coast towns of Gulfport, Pass Christian, Biloxi, and Bay St. Louis, professional fishermen came, 120 of their boats freighted north by rail and unloaded on the edge of the flood in Vicksburg, Greenwood, Yazoo City, and a few making it to Greenville on the last train, arriving just as water roared through the streets. The “river rats” came too, men who lived on houseboats and survived by fishing and trapping and building rafts of logs, floating them downriver to the giant Greenville sawmills. They too lifted their boats over the levee and headed over what had been fields.

It was a time for individual initiative and heroism. Will B. Moore, a black man working for a Greenville lumberyard, said, “I made myself and a bunch of men, I got a committee, we just built boats, went out and caught locals.” Hunter Kimbrough grew up in a planter family, made films with Sergei Eisenstein in Mexico, and was a bond salesman at the Whitney Bank in New Orleans when the flood came. He asked for leave to help. The Clearing House Association gave him $3,000 and wished him luck, and he bought two motors, took a train to Vicksburg, and got on a stern-wheel steamboat for Greenville. There he found a large steel-hulled government boat and lifted it over the levee. For the next ten days he stayed in the Percy home at night, rode through the fields by day. Herman Caillouet, a Cajun, lived in Greenville, worked for the Corps of Engineers, and had a river pilot’s license. He was not one of the social elite; his wife made dresses for debutantes. But upon hearing news of the break, he put a Model T Ford engine on his own 22-foot boat and set out onto the new sea towing another 22-footer. On his first trip back to Greenville, he unloaded refugees on the levee as the water was entering the town. “I go into Jim’s Café and say gimme hotcakes,” he recalled. “He says, ‘Water’s running in here now.’ ‘Well I can’t help that. I ain’t had dinner.’ He says, ‘I’m fixing to leave.’ ‘Put ’em on,’ I said, ‘I’ll cook ’em.’ When I finished eating, the water was up to my knees, but I cooked some more.” Then he went back out. Two days after the crevasse, Caillouet’s wife delivered his son. He left her to go out on the water again.

He did not always succeed. A black man with two kegs of whiskey in his house would not leave though waves were crashing against it. When Caillouet returned the next day, there was no house anymore, only water. Another time he spotted a family of seven stranded in a floating house, moving with the current. He headed for them. Suddenly, the house hit something or a wave hit it and it splintered. He was only a hundred yards or so away, but… “I searched the boards and things…and never saw a soul come up, not a soul. When the house started breaking up and falling, you see, and the waves throwing that lumber over, it just covered ’em to where they couldn’t come out from under…. Seven of them…. I went round and round, did not see a hand.” But in three days and nights, working almost nonstop, Caillouet rescued 150 people.

Virginia Pullen remembered her father coming home from rescue work: “He found one family with two small children; they handed him the baby out of the tree. A lady and two small children and two teenage boys. He never did know if they all were the same family. She handed him the baby, and just as she handed him the baby, it breathed its last. That really upset the rescue workers—the idea that they didn’t get there the day before, why didn’t they push farther.”

Mrs. Hebe Crittenden was one of those rescued, just as currents were undermining her house. She and a dozen of her sharecroppers could feel it shake. She recalled, “We could hear water sloshing up under the house. The coloreds started singing spirituals.”

Ernest Clarke was less lucky. He and his family had had no warning until the cattle began to low. As he started to get his boat ready, the water was upon them, the rolling, deepening surf smashing his boat to bits. He fled back to his house. The water tipped the whole house over, crushing it, throwing him, his mother, his wife, and his four daughters into the water. He fought free and climbed a tree. Three days later he was rescued. At the Greenville hospital he learned his entire family had drowned. The bodies of three of his children were found later tangled in barbed wire; the fourth body was never found.

Many rescuers carried guns. One used it more than once to keep people from jumping into his boat and capsizing it. Another shot a cow that was trying to clamber aboard. Dogs were abandoned, left frightened and barking on rooftops in the vast expanse of water.

But some men were less than helpful. One planter put his black sharecroppers in his cotton gin and nailed it shut. They broke out. Just below Mounds Landing on the levee two armed white men stood with 200 blacks who sharecropped for them. A steamer stopped and lowered the gangplank, but the whites refused to allow any blacks to get aboard for fear they would not return. The captain argued with them. Finally, a physician on the steamer climbed down the gangplank. The men blocked him. He snapped: “I come here by the authority of the American Red Cross and the God of all creation. If either of you has guts enough to pull the gun you carry please start now or get out of my way and I don’t believe either of you has the guts.” The doctor pushed past them and the 200 black men, women, and children boarded the steamer.

Soon rescue became systematized. Large mother ships, usually paddle-wheel steamers pushing open barges that held 1,500 people, operated in the rivers and streams, not worrying about where the channel lay. Motorboats, skiffs with outboards, and even rowboats were attached to each mother ship; they penetrated inland and searched for survivors, or picked up those stranded on levees or Indian mounds. The work was always dangerous. Even where the water seemed still, a submerged fence post, or stump, or a dozen other obstacles could capsize or rip a hole in a boat.

From Greenville itself, and Greenwood and Vicksburg also, each morning at daybreak rescuers headed their boats out into the country, generally carrying a mechanic for the motor and a mailman who knew rural routes. They followed power lines down roads. Telephones still worked. People phoned in that they were trapped, or someone else was trapped. Planes flew over and acted as spotters. When a boat filled, the rescuer turned around and carried his load back to the Greenville levee or, if he was close to Greenwood, fifty miles and four hours by boat across the sea from Greenville, he took people there.

Greenwood marked the end of the flat Delta, the beginning of the hills. It was dry.

WILL PERCY WROTE: “For thirty-six hours the Delta was in turmoil, in movement, in terror. Then the waters covered everything, the turmoil ceased, and a great quiet settled down…. Over everything was silence, deadlier because of the strange cold sound of the currents gnawing at foundations, hissing against walls, creaming and clawing over obstacles.”

The terror lasted more than thirty-six hours. Eight days after the break a desperate wire said, “The Mississippi Delta is under water from two to eighteen feet and lots of people are drowning. 250 people in vicinity of Midnight, Miss., and Louise are begging for aid and if not moved by morning will be drowned.”

Then the silence did come. Out on the water there was unimaginable silence. As far as the eye could see was an expanse of brackish chocolate water. There was not the bark of a dog, the lowing of a cow, the neighing of a horse. Even the trees turned dingy, their trunks and leaves caked with dried mud. The silence was complete and suffocating.

The water seemed stagnant, but it moved. The current showed itself and became fierce when it ran over railroad embankments or suddenly collapsed a building. At cross streets in downtown Greenville currents drowned people, until submerged cars were towed to the intersections to act as breakwaters.

A few days after the crevasse it turned hot, the steaming hot of the Delta. Outside Greenville, Henry Mascagni recalled hundreds of bodies of animals floating “just swelled up. I saw three people, colored, floating, swelled up.” A week after the flood, he went out on a boat. “The first thing we saw was a 350-lb hog—they had put a lot of hogs on the levee. We had no motorboat, all rowed by hand. The fellows said, ‘Well there’s one we can kill and bring back and feed the people.’ When we got close we see it was eating on a dead black woman, and he had done eaten quite a bit of her. She was bloated up…. The hog had drug her right to the edge of the water, trying to get her up on the bank where he could eat her with no trouble. I never will forget it. All we did, and could do, was kill the hog. What was left of the colored woman we just pulled her down to the canal ditch and just turned her loose and it floated on off…. We brought the hog back, killed it, cleaned it, the people were so hungry they were eating it before it was cooked…. I don’t know what this disease was you got from uncooked pork but I think two people died.”

One report quoted a responsible Corps of Engineers employee who had personally seen “fully two hundred bodies of dead persons in the flooded area between Vicksburg and Greenville.”

Meanwhile, the river continued to pour through Mounds Landing. Five weeks after the crevasse, Caillouet took two engineers to survey it in a river commission steamer 50 feet long. Some waves still stood 12 feet high. Choosing discretion over valor, the engineers told Caillouet to drop them off on the levee before he shot the crevasse. He did, then picked them up inside the break. The crevasse was three-quarters of a mile wide. (Today a 65-acre lake remains a permanent legacy.) With a lead line 100 feet long, they took soundings and found no bottom.

HOOVER HAD LITTLE IMPACT on the initial rescue effort, but as the flood rolled south and spread across the land, he listened, set policy, delegated, and organized. As each day passed, his hand was felt more and more, and the Red Cross and Army officials under him took firm control. By April 26, Colonel George Spalding, who commanded the official rescue fleet, was instructing scattered Army engineers to reject boats offered for use unless they had been carefully inspected. He also dictated such details as the amount of coal with which “[e]very relief boat should be equipped.” Soon thereafter, as the waters were swelling on every river, stream, and bayou in Louisiana, Spalding controlled a fleet of 826 vessels, including Navy and Coast Guard ships, along with 27 Navy seaplanes used for spotting stranded refugees and inspecting levees. Army engineers were filing daily reports with the Red Cross about weak levees, and, given this warning, the rescue fleet then concentrated nearby.

On April 30, the day after Hoover had watched the dynamiting of the levee at Caernarvon, he was back in Memphis. There he spoke by radio to the nation in a fund-raising appeal for the Red Cross. It was his first national address, one of the first by anyone. “I am speaking to you from the temporary headquarters which we have established for the national fight against the most dangerous flood our country has ever known,” he began. “It is difficult to picture in words the might of the Mississippi in flood…. A week ago when it broke the levee [at Mounds Landing], only a quarter of the river went through the hole. Yet in a week it poured water up to twenty feet deep over…an area up to 150 miles long and 50 miles wide…. Behind this crest lies the ruin of 200,000 people. Thousands still cling to their homes where the upper floors are yet dry. But thousands more have need to be removed in boats and established in great camps on the higher ground. Other thousands are camped upon broken levees. This is the pitiable plight of a lost battle.”

Now, he warned, the struggle was continuing along battle lines to the south. “Everything humanly possible is being done by men of magnificent courage and skill. It is a great battle against the oncoming rush, and in every home behind the battle line there is apprehension and anxiety. Every night’s reading of the water gauges is telegraphed to the remotest parts of those states—a sort of communiqué of the progress of the impending, threatening invasion of an enemy. It is a great battle which the engineers are directing. They have already held important levees against the water enemy. What the result of the fight may be no one knows. But the fortitude, industry, courage and resolution of the people of the south in this struggle cannot fail to bring pride to every American tonight…. Another week will be a great epic. I believe they will be victorious.”

But almost as he spoke, a man in an airplane above Vicksburg watched as the waters that had inundated the Delta rejoined the main river and reported, “The swiftly moving current…[was] clearly visible as it pounded its way back into the Mississippi, from which most of it escaped two weeks ago when the levee north of Greenville gave way.”

It pressed against the levee on the opposite bank. It was relentless, its weight and force immense. Two days after Hoover’s broadcast, the levee at Cabin Teele, Louisiana, yielded. Now water roared over land to the west. Soon the Memphis Commercial-Appealannounced, “Today it is possible to go from Vicksburg to Monroe, Louisiana, by boat.” Monroe was 75 miles distant. The Cabin Teele crevasse extended the width of the inland sea to 125 miles.

New York Times reporter described his flight over the region: “For mile after mile all the land in view was the tops of the levees, to which thousands had fled for safety. In places the tops of giant cypress and oak trees still swayed in the breeze, the only green spots in the picture. The lake extends far into Arkansas and probably 100 miles…from the banks of the Mississippi into Louisiana.”

These waters were draining south through the flat land into rivers already at record height, into the Tensas, the Boeuf, the Ouachita, the Red, the Atchafalaya, rivers whose waters were climbing higher and higher, pushing against walls of rising sandbags.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!