Louisiana 1927, Again

I grew up less than a mile from the Mississippi River in New Orleans.  You could walk to the levee, which we often did, and ride horses on the flat gravel road at its peak.  On one side of the levee – the side that runs along the river – is a steep slide of concrete.  The other side that faces the west bank area of New Orleans, called Algiers, is made of  a long grassy slope.  It would be a great place for sledding should it ever snow, but that is a once-in-decades occurrence.

The Crescent City of New Orleans is protected from the whims of Mother Nature by this huge boundary between the river and the city.  It is not one of the levees that broke after Hurricane Katrina.   Those levees protected neighborhoods from canals.  If the Mississippi River levee were ever breached here, it would almost certainly eclipse the damage and, possibly, the loss of life attributed to Katrina.  That’s why the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has, for the first time, opened three Mississippi floodways – one in Missouri and two in Louisiana.

Not just New Orleans, but the Louisiana capital city of Baton Rouge is being threatened by rising water.  The  hope is that opening the spillways will prevent flooding in heavily populated areas.   But there are numerous smaller communities that many fear the rising waters will – like the Randy Newman song says – “wash us away.”

On April 15th (Good Friday) of 1927, after months of heavy rainfall and snow across the Midwest and Mississippi Valley of the United States, 38 centimeters of rain fell on New Orleans within 18 hours.  A day later, the levee broke upstream in Missouri.  More levees were breached in the following days and weeks.

On April 29, 1927, fearing New Orleans would be soon be under water, the levee downstream from the city was dynamited.  The flooding inundated the mostly poor areas of St. Bernard and Plaquemines Parishes.   Those same parishes, more recently, were also among the hardest hit by Hurricane Katrina and the Gulf oil spill.

In 1927, engineers thought the levee system could prevent one of the largest rivers in the world from cresting over its banks.  Failing that, engineers now hope the complex floodways and spillways built along its path in response to the 1927 flood will prevent another disaster.  But the Mississippi River, the fourth longest in the world – flowing from the northern state of Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico – has a lot of strength behind it.  As Mark Twain observed more than a 150 years ago, “the Mississippi River will always have its own way; no engineering skill can persuade it to do otherwise.”

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