Modern history

Part Seven



THE GREAT RIVER was finally done with its valley. On January 1, 1927, the first of its many crests had breached flood stage at Cairo, Illinois, and began flowing south, the river rising above flood stage January 5 at Memphis, January 16 at Vicksburg, February 12 at Baton Rouge, February 13 at New Orleans. As late as June 30, Isaac Cline was still issuing daily bulletins to warn of the water.

At its angriest the Mississippi had boiled across its floodplain, crushed the works of man, and forced Nature herself to step back, forced the great Ohio to flow upstream. It had spread, said the preachers, as wide as God’s arms. Then, slowly, the river fell. Like the earlier rise, the fall flowed south, toward the sea. Not until June 14 did the flood subside at Cairo, not until June 22 at Memphis, July 11 at Vicksburg, July 14 at Baton Rouge. But at New Orleans the river, unnaturally, had fallen below flood stage more than a month earlier, on June 12. It had done so because of the use of 78,000 pounds of dynamite on the levee in St. Bernard; the dynamiting had not been necessary to save New Orleans, but it had lowered the river.

While much of the lower Mississippi valley contended with the June rise, New Orleans went about its business as though the flood had never happened, aware only of summer. It was a hot summer, even for New Orleans. The elegant Saenger Theater, adorned by $25,000 chandeliers brought from one of France’s great castles, put in air-conditioning for the first time and found itself jammed every performance. Elsewhere in the night heat, in the French Quarter, in the neighborhoods for the “coloreds,” in the Ninth Ward shotgun houses extending down to the St. Bernard line, across the river in Algiers, men and women sat on balconies and porches to escape the heat. Along Basin Street in the remnants of Storyville, in the French Quarter, in the steamy close clubs, the jazz music welled up and rolled through the city on its own river.

It was time to deal with the aftermath. In this too the city’s elite would reveal itself. The revelation would have import.

THE MEN who ran New Orleans had succeeded. Sitting in offices, windows newly sealed against the heat and the music and cooled by the marvel of air-conditioning, they would determine what their flood did to St. Bernard and Plaquemines.

James Butler in particular would make that determination. He was not an intellectual like his brother, the Tulane professor and graduate of the Sorbonne, yet he believed that he too dealt with large questions, with the infrastructure of society, power, money, and character. Indeed, he sat at the nexus of these things. He headed the only southern bank listed as one of the world’s largest. His wife was queen of the Mystic Club. He chaired the city’s Citizens Flood Relief Committee. He and John Parker represented Louisiana on the Tri-State Flood Control Committee, an ad hoc group but one that also included LeRoy Percy, representing Mississippi, and Governor John Martineau, representing Arkansas. Together these few men would sit down with Hoover and plan the long-term federal response to the flood, a response that would be enormously far-reaching.

Butler also controlled what happened to the thousands of victims of the artificial crevasse. The Red Cross and Hoover had refused all responsibility for them, declaring them the city’s business entirely. And the city left it to Butler. Without any legal authority, he chose an executive committee from the larger Citizens Committee to decide what the city should do. But he found even this executive committee too cumbersome. Instead, he met with an even smaller and less formal group each morning at 8 A.M. in his office, and on weekends at his home. This group included Rudolph Hecht, president of the Hibernia Bank, J. Blanc Monroe, and H. Generes Dufour. Butler, Hecht, and, later, Monroe, the attorney and banker who was representing the city in regard to reparations for the refugees, all served on the Board of Liquidation. Dufour, Hecht’s one real friend, was the board’s attorney.

They and their peers had always run the city sub rosa; now they ran it for all to see, assuming even ceremonial duties. When Will Rogers offered to give a benefit performance in New Orleans, it was not the mayor but Butler who accepted, expressing “my sincere appreciation of your most generous offer.” Now they began to press their weight against, enfold, and suffocate those people and institutions under their control.

Butler had already created the Emergency Clearing House Publicity Committee to handle public relations for the city. The committee’s first move was to bully businesses within New Orleans. Such bullying had a long history. A month before the levee was dynamited, the Association of Commerce had rebuked ninety-two firms that bought postage stamps outside the city, thereby removing the money from the local economy. As the river was rising, several companies had tried to slash their inventories. When the Otis Mahogany Company failed to get flood insurance, it told customers around the nation “we have decided to cut our prices for a few days to move out quickly a good volume of mahogany lumber, so if anything should happen our flood loss would be minimized.” The publicity committee warned Otis, “This kind of letter…is apt to cause New Orleans considerable harm.” The rebuke was written on New Orleans Clearing House Association stationery, a veiled threat that banks would hold the company accountable. The publicity committee attacked even such New Orleans boosters as Walter Parker, a board member of the Association of Commerce and executive director of the Safe River Committee, who was admonished for sending clients of the brokerage firm Fenner & Beane an estimate of the reparations New Orleans would owe. Meanwhile, local newspaper editors were advised, “[A]ny announcements or developments tending to improve the popular impression of conditions here should be given prominent headlines.” The papers all promptly began running repeated headlines, “City Out of Danger.”

Then the public relations machine turned outward in an extraordinary effort to convince the world that New Orleans had never been threatened by the Mississippi River. The publicity committee had already distributed Butler’s affirmation of the city’s safety to 2,100 banks and investment firms, scheduled repeated broadcasts of Army engineers stating that the city was in no danger, and forced Moody’s Investors Service to correct a wire it had sent. As the crisis receded, the committee contacted 265 conventions held around the country in May and June, informing them that the city had never been in danger and requesting them to pass flood control resolutions. It also distributed feature stories to 300 trade journals, wired every Chamber of Commerce in the United States, sent out 40,000 reprints of statements by General Jadwin that the city was safe, contacted the Kiwanis, Rotary, the Lions, dozens of real estate boards, and urged every large company in the city to write its clients around the world, informing them of “facts.” And sometimes the committee made threats. As W. K. Seago, a sugar broker, warned one man, “New Orleans is…generously helping those in actual suffering in the flooded areas and we commend her example to her TRADUCERS reminding them that their day of reckoning will come and that while the mills of the Gods grind slowly they GRIND EXCEEDING SMALL.”

Simultaneously, the New Orleans committee also pressured the media directly. The St. Bernard Voice had been complaining that the dynamiting was unnecessary, that St. Bernard and Plaquemines were being sacrificed for “the financial interests” who worried only about investor confidence. The reporters traveling with Hoover believed it. As natural crevasses far upriver proved that the dynamiting had been unnecessary, editorials from Springfield, Massachusetts, to Kalamazoo, Michigan, began to criticize the city. The Memphis Commercial-Appeal wrote mockingly of “New Orleans ‘Babbitry.’… If New Orleans is ever flooded the world will not know it unless there is some outside newspaper man there. The newspapers of New Orleans have not told their own people the actual situation. It’s business depression that’s feared. Many leaders of the town had much rather take a chance at loss of life and destruction of property than face the possibility of the grain market slumping a couple of notches, the price of cotton falling 50 to 100 points, or New Orleans stocks going under the least of a strain.”

The city’s financial interests responded aggressively enough that the Memphis Commercial-Appeal apologized and agreed to print no more such stories. Then the city began to reach out. Butler’s committee had already wrung promises of cooperation from every national newsreel company. Now it contracted with two clipping services covering hundreds of papers, each of which was “carefully reviewed for mis-statements.” It got corrections printed by the New York Times, the New York Sun, Literary Digest, the Atlanta Journal, the Cincinnati Enquirer, the Birmingham News, United Press, and dozens of others. Alvin Howard, a director of the Times-Picayune, informed. Butler that “the famous writer” Richard Child was in town writing for the Saturday Evening Post. He suggested that top businessmen and journalists contact him and try to influence the story. They did.

And the committee asked Jim Thomson to help. Through his national political connections and ownership of papers in Virginia as well as New Orleans, he was well known in the newspaper community. He convinced executives of the wire services to cooperate and wrote to Editor and Publisher, a trade magazine for newspaper executives, the Southern Newspaper Publishers Association, and elsewhere that “a citizens committee representing all of the business interests of New Orleans has asked me to attempt to get before the news and picture editors throughout the United States a correction of several unfortunate and damaging impressions that experts feared for the safety of the city of New Orleans itself.”

There was one other effort to improve the city’s image. The Association of Commerce, whose leading members all served on Butler’s Citizens Committee, had a budget of $130,000 in 1927, along with a surplus of $78,000 in its treasury. It donated $500 to the Red Cross flood relief fund. It spent $605 honoring Hoover at a luncheon. In advance of that luncheon, the association demanded that the police clear beggars from downtown streets. It later reported: “Superintendent of Police Healy inaugurated and carried forward an intensive campaign against beggars during the entire month. The effort resulted in 21 arrests.”

BUT IF THE CITY succeeded in convincing the nation that, despite its insistence upon dynamiting the levee downriver to relieve pressure on itself, it had never been in danger, it was creating resentment in its neighbors.

The New Iberia Enterprise thanked “the noble and unselfish manner in which our sister towns have responded to our appeal in distress, and rushed trucks and men and cowboys with their own mounts to plunge headlong into the thick of the great rescue work,…risking their lives.” From New Orleans they had gotten nothing. “What a contrast to our own metropolis, boasting the greatest population of the South, conspicuous by her failure to respond! Not a single truck, which bore the name of New Orleans! How her great dailies have played up our calamity to the world in advance of the flood, while they proclaimed their own security, purchased at so dear a price.”

Even the board of the Association of Commerce conceded “in the mind of a great many of the country people New Orleans was only concerned with its own safety during the recent high water period.” In response, it planned a new publicity campaign “to see if we cannot overcome the feeling that exists between the city and the country…. Unless we [are] able to sell the city to the country the city will always be the loser when it comes to legislation.”

Perhaps this effort might have yielded at least some success, but then the city, through Butler and the men with whom he met daily, began to hammer against the refugees.

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