Modern history

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

THE RIVER was conquering everything.

“First the Cairo to Memphis sector was lost,” reported the New York Times. “Next the river triumphed as it surged south through the Memphis to Vicksburg sector. Its victory has been complete and overwhelming in the sector that stretches from Vicksburg to the mouth of the Red River. Now comes the struggle to hold the levees of the Red and the Mississippi, westward in the Red for a distance of seventy-five miles…. Tonight 250 rescue boats are being concentrated at the mouth of the Red.” “[Failure would] increase the refugee army now depending on the Red Cross for food, clothing and shelter to nearly 400,000 in six states.”

In advance of the flood, Louisiana State University students were trained to operate the outboard motors for boats. Engineers set up ten wireless radio stations, and twenty-four seaplanes and twelve airplanes were used to spot stranded refugees. A hailstorm knocked out four planes in one day, the hailstones going through the propellers like bullets. No topographical maps existed, and every railroad operating in the state cooperated with Isaac Cline, who also collected details about forestation and other obstructions and devised a formula to predict the movement of the flood over land, then issued bulletins daily, and sometimes twice daily. These bulletins went straight to Hoover and were also issued publicly; they were astoundingly accurate.

Based on Cline’s predictions and Army engineers’ warnings about levee weak points, Hoover and Fieser set up what they called “concentration camps” in advance of anticipated crevasses, sending telegrams to mayors or chairmen of local Red Cross committees, warning them of the oncoming flood. Typically, Hoover wired L. G. Porter of New Iberia, Louisiana, a town in Cajun country sixty miles west of the Mississippi River, “We wish that the Red Cross chapter at New Iberia would take in hand at once the construction of a camp at some point between New Iberia and Burke as your surveyors may determine laid out for 10,000 people.” Included were precise instructions on building tent platforms, latrines, pipelines, drilling wells, and connecting power lines. “The National Red Cross will bear the expense, but we are depending upon your citizens to undertake the work and do its supervision on a voluntary basis.”

While Hoover saw to the building of refugee camps, thousands of men struggled to save the levees. The Bayou des Glaises levee was key. If it went, others would fall like dominoes and the “Sugar Bowl” region of Louisiana would likely go under water. Much of this land, protected by ridges that had contained all previous overflows, had never been flooded.

Here men mounted one of the most intense and longest struggles against the river. It also seemed the most hopeless. The levee had not been designed to hold such a volume of water. The flood, hemmed in by hills to the west and, ironically, the Mississippi levees to the east, had formed another inland sea that reached a depth of twenty-four feet and rose five feet above the levee. Sandbags could not keep back such a height for long. On May 9 waves began to break over the top of the levee. Thousands of men piled more sandbags higher. Miraculously, they continued to hold.

Then the rains fell again. In two days the spring’s final major storm dumped eleven more inches of rain on the area. On May 12 miles of the Bayou des Glaises levee simply crumbled. Hundreds of millions of tons of water began pushing through the crevasse. The waters were immense, hurtling south to the sea through the Evangeline country.

Hoover had earlier told the 105,000 people in the area to evacuate. Few had. But Hoover and the Red Cross had prepared. Thousands of trucks rolled into the area just ahead of the first wave of water. Four trains carrying boats, motors, and now-experienced rescuers headed in from different directions, and the rescue fleet entered just behind the first wave of water. All 105,000 people, along with most of their cattle, horses, and mules, were evacuated with crisp efficiency and few deaths.

Cline announced that the flood crest had itself escaped the channel of the Mississippi and was now traveling over land. It was twenty-five miles wide and “of tremendous proportions, exceeding in height the previous highest water in that basin, which was in 1882.”

The Mississippi flood could never have reached New Orleans. But it was covering areas where no white man had ever seen it, heading toward Melville, Louisiana, a town on the west bank of the Atchafalaya River. Before the Bayou des Glaises water arrived there, on May 17 at 5:30 A.M. in Melville, the Atchafalaya itself broke through the levee. Guards ran through the town firing guns, shouting, “Crevasse! Crevasse!” One man clanged the church bell over and over and over. Melville’s 1,000 residents fled to the levee.

Almost in the center of the town, water from the two crevasses collided. They met violently, with, as one resident said, “the sound of a thousand freight trains.” The collision ripped apart a steel railroad bridge and drowned its tender, and left, according to a later Red Cross report, “immense deposits of sediment throughout the town and surrounding countryside [creating] tremendous sand dunes, practically burying the community…washing away houses, shifting others from foundations.” The New York Times reported “a veritable wall of water…running in places thirty or more feet high,…sweeping everything in its path.”

Later that day in Plaucheville, Louisiana, a family of nine drowned when their house collapsed, undermined by the current. Their bodies were found floating in 16 feet of water.

On May 20, Hoover, concerned about another crevasse at McCrea, Louisiana, on the east bank of the Atchafalaya, ordered the evacuation of 35,000 more people. This time they left immediately.

Engineers insisted they had a chance to win this fight, to save the east-bank Atchafalaya levee. For weeks they had been strengthening it, and the crevasse on the opposite bank had relieved some pressure. In addition, the Mississippi River was falling. It was falling only by inches a day, but from St. Paul to New Orleans, it was falling. The great crest had passed.

Now 2,500 men worked at McCrea in shifts. They used every technique, shielding the levee with lumber, backing it up with sandbags, revetting it with rocks. Repeatedly, some small part of the levee crumbled into the river, but each time hundreds of men rushed to the spot with timber, rocks, and sandbags. “They are soldiers, every one, heroes, too,” Hoover said of them.

But at three-thirty in the morning of May 24, muddy water suddenly appeared behind the levee. A few moments later a stretch of levee 700 feet long crashed into the river. The river had just ripped open the last crevasse of the 1927 flood.

The current near the crevasse roared past at 30 miles an hour. An Associated Press report said: “A wall of water 40 feet high and almost 20 miles wide tonight was…cutting a path of desolation across the length of Louisiana…. Immediately behind the advancing waters scores of residents of the lower Atchafalaya were being rescued by tiny boats which ploughed precariously through the raging current to remove them from housetops…. Further back, along the Bayou des Glaises sector, only the swishing of the water could be heard.”

The image of a 20-mile-wide 40-foot-high wall of water was hyperbole, but the Atchafalaya had breached levees on both its banks and was spreading still another sea across central Louisiana. The flood rose to 42 feet above sea level, while the land through which it flowed had an elevation of less than 10 feet. Another 150,000 more people became refugees. Hoover informed Coolidge, “All population that could be flooded is already covered.”

IN JUNE came the final blow. Another flood crest began moving from Cairo south. June rises, usually coming from the Missouri, were common. As early as May 13, Hoover had wired the War Department: “Imperative that refugees be not discouraged by fear of crop destruction by…possibility of June rise…. Desirable Mississippi River Commission stretch to utmost their authority.” The War Department had assured him it would protect the area from a new rise. In fact, it did nothing. It could do nothing. It, and all the people along the river, were spent.

Many areas that were flooded in March and April, especially in Missouri and Arkansas, had begun emerging from the water. People had planted cotton. Now the river poured through the breaches already made and drowned much of that cotton.

Only in one place would man even attempt to hold back the June rise. This final battle would take place in Greenville, Mississippi.

NO OFFICIAL FIGURES summarize the deaths and flooding along tributaries from Oklahoma to West Virginia, but along the lower Mississippi alone the flood put as much as 30 feet of water over lands where 931,159 people—the nation’s total population was only 120 million—had lived. Twenty-seven thousand square miles were inundated, roughly equal to Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Vermont combined. As late as July 1, 1.5 million acres remained underwater. Not until mid-August, more than four months after the first break in a mainline Mississippi River levee, did all the water leave the land.

An estimated 330,000 people were rescued from rooftops, trees, isolated patches of high ground, and levees. The Red Cross ran 154 “concentration camps,” tent cities, in seven states—Kentucky, Tennessee, Missouri, Illinois, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Louisiana. A total of 325,554 people, the majority of them African-American, lived in these camps for as long as four months. An additional 311,922 people outside the camps were fed and clothed by the Red Cross. Most of these were white. Of the remaining 300,000 people, most fled; a few cared for themselves, surviving on their own food and on their own property.

Deaths occurred from Kansas, where thirty-two towns and cities were inundated, to West Virginia. Officially, the Red Cross reported 246 people drowned; the U.S. Weather Bureau reported 313. (The Red Cross confidentially warned Hoover its figures on deaths were “not necessarily reliable.”) Official sources attributed an additional 250 deaths indirectly to the flood. But the death toll almost certainly ran far higher. It was impossible to know how many bodies were buried beneath tons of mud, or washed out into the Gulf. The head of the National Safety Council estimated deaths in the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta alone at 1,000.

The Red Cross estimated direct economic losses at $246,000,000. The U.S. Weather Bureau put direct losses at $355,147,000. Unofficial but authoritative estimates exceeded $500,000,000; with indirect losses, the number approached $1,000,000,000, large enough in 1927 to affect the national economy.

The river itself left a legacy. The Mississippi carried only 1,500,000 cubic feet of water per second past New Orleans to the sea, while the artificial crevasse in St. Bernard carried 250,000 cfs. An additional 950,000 cfs moved down the Atchafalaya to the Gulf; had the Mississippi River Commission closed the Atchafalaya, as it had wanted to do, the increased Mississippi flow might have destroyed New Orleans.

The enormous Atchafalaya current helped create a new problem. Before the Civil War, one could cross the head of the Atchafalaya at low water on a plank 15 feet long. The river had long since enlarged, and the 1927 flood further scoured the channel, widening and deepening it, making the Atchafalaya hungry for still more water. It began threatening to claim the entire flow of the Mississippi, luring the Mississippi away from Baton Rouge and New Orleans.

And the flood made Hoover a national hero.

COOLIDGE had done nothing. After he initially refused to visit the flooded area, the governor of Mississippi wired him again: “I urgently request and insist that you make personal visit at this time…. I appeal to you to come and make this inspection.” The Manufacturer’s Record declared “that a visit by you to that region would be worthy of the highest statesmanship and enable you to accomplish results of untold indeed of inestimable value.” A Philadelphia Republican asked “that you go forthwith to some city near the flooded district…. If you did this a thrill would go through the country.”

Coolidge declined.

“Big Bill” Thompson, Republican mayor of Chicago, wired; Arthur O’Keefe, Democratic mayor of New Orleans, wired. The president of the Mississippi State Board of Development pleaded: “Earnestly urge that you personally visit flood sections of Mississippi…. Mississippi Valley needs your help now and only by personal inspection can you grasp the situation.”

Coolidge declined.

Eight senators and four governors jointly and formally pleaded with him anew to come South, arguing that the public would be more responsive to the Red Cross if he did. From Greenville the governor of Mississippi begged a third time: “More than ever…I want again to appeal to you to come in person. Your coming would center eyes of nation and the consequent publicity would result in securing millions of dollars additional aid for sufferers.”

Coolidge declined.

NBC asked him to broadcast a nationwide appeal through a historic radio hookup. (Hoover would make this and a later broadcast instead.) The Duluth Cosmopolitan Club asked him for a dozen signed photographs to auction off at a benefit for flood victims. Will Rogers asked him to “send me a telegram that I can read at our benefit for flood sufferers tomorrow night.”

All these requests Coolidge declined.

For months the flood dominated the nation’s newspapers. For months, every single day the New York Times ran at least one story on the flood. For nearly a month, every day it ran a flood story on page 1. It was page 1 in Seattle, page 1 in San Diego, page 1 in Boston, page 1 in Miami. In the interior of the country, in the Mississippi valley itself, the story was bigger. Newspaper editors later overwhelmingly named the flood the greatest story of 1927, even though on May 22, Charles Lindbergh had, temporarily, driven the flood off the front pages of their newspapers.

But if Coolidge did nothing, Hoover did everything. For months hardly a day passed without his name appearing in a heroic and effective posture, saving the lives of Americans. He was the focus of newsreels, of magazine feature stories, of Sunday supplements. The flood influenced the treatment of him on other questions as well. Almost like the president, everything he did was news. Not counting flood-related stories, references to him in the New York Times tripled during the three-month period after the flood, compared to the three months before the flood.

He and his staff tracked the stories around the country carefully. Twice and sometimes three times a week Hoover saw summaries of them. The report for Saturday, May 14, read: “Since the last report on this subject, written 5/10, a further vast amount of publicity and editorial comment has been forthcoming. The number of editorials received which express approbation and appreciation of Mr. Hoover has reached 153…. This number represents only the editorials received here and doubtless there have been hundreds of others…. Hartford Courant contains the following passage: ‘The country admires Mr. Hoover and justly. The politicians do not appear to relish pushing him forward. Many people would be interested to see what he would do if made president, yet they are not apt to have the opportunity.’”

The May 17 summary noted: “The Magazine section of the New York Times [has] an article entitled, ‘Again Hoover Does an Emergency Job’…;The Boise Idaho Statesman editorial called ‘Hoover to the rescue’ says, ‘America is sold on the organizing and directing genius of Hoover…. No wonder this man, who is no skilled politician, no spell-binder, no campaigner, no leader of a political clique, is persistently and continually advanced as the logical man for the swivel chair behind the big desk in the…White House!’ The Louisville KY Herald…says, ‘That there’s no man in the country today who can do the job as well, may, some are hinting, boost that gentleman’s chances for a presidential nomination.’”

The summary of May 23 noted a Nashville Banner editorial: “‘There is no honor in the gift of the people of which [Hoover] is not worthy’; the Oakland Tribune tells of renewed talk from Washington concerning Mr. Hoover, due to his being once more in the public eye…‘[H]e is the ablest and most efficient American in public life…. In personal fitness for the presidency there is no other American, even remotely, in Mr. Hoover’s class.’”

There was virtually no criticism of his role, although many papers attacked Coolidge. Yet the truth was not enough for Hoover. He had to embellish it. He had to be perfect, even if it required lying. In his second national radio address, just after the final crevasse in Louisiana, he said that three hundred had died before he took charge, then bragged: “I can state at once a positive fact which will give satisfaction to every American. We have not had, so far as we know, the loss of half a dozen lives since we undertook central control and coordination of all agencies of relief in this great catastrophe.” Later he claimed even fewer deaths, saying, “Only three lives have been lost since the national organization initiated its action on April 20th.”

He deserved credit for saving lives. Without the magnificent organization he created and led, certainly dozens, probably hundreds—and possibly thousands—more would have died.

But his claim was a lie. The lowest count of the dead after April 20 exceeded 150, including at least 83 after he personally took control in Memphis; probably many more had died. Fieser, fearing Hoover’s claim would damage the credibility of the Red Cross, even warned him of his error. Hoover persisted in repeating it.

He believed he was as scientific and objective as engineering itself. He believed he made decisions based only upon facts and truth. He was lying, and most of all to himself. This flaw meant that every decision he made was built on sand. It would haunt him, but not yet.

In the meantime, the media chose not to confront him. He was a hero. Although papers across the nation had reported deaths on page 1 that clearly exceeded his claim, the staff-produced press summaries, which reported the rare negative comment, noted not a single complaint about his facts. Instead, it quoted an editorial appearing in the New York Telegram, the Youngstown (Ohio) Telegram, and most other Scripps-Howard papers: “Unstinted praise can be offered the Secretary of Commerce for the work he already has performed in bringing order out of chaos…. Only 6 lives were lost after Hoover took hold…300 lives had been lost before Hoover reached the scene. There is a fine tribute in these figures.”

Hoover had earlier said “the world lives by phrases,” and called public relations “an exact science.” The publicity and his image-making machine was doing its work. If on the eve of the flood Hoover had not even won mention as a presidential contender, now Hoover was precisely correct when he told his old friend from Stanford, Will Irwin, that, assuming Coolidge did not seek the Republican presidential nomination, “I shall be the nominee, probably. It is nearly inevitable.”

He would be the nominee, that was, unless some deus ex machina destroyed his chances. A scandal, for example, could make all the publicity he had received blow up in his face. The press was creating his candidacy; it could destroy it. And one potentially explosive scandal was threatening in Greenville, Mississippi. At its center lay LeRoy Percy and his son Will.

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