Sunday, May 10, 2009

Katrina One – “When the Levee Breaks”

Rising Tide – the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, and How it Changed America, By John M Barr, 1997

Katrina wasn’t the first time. This book details how many of the same problems of Katrina – racism, government inaction, broken promises, profiteering, the Army Corps of Engineers, the ruling clique of New Orleans – were there in 1927, long before the 2005 hurricane overtopped the levees around New Orleans. However, instead of coming from the Gulf, this torrent of water came from upstream. 1926 and 1927 had massive rains upstream, in the various tributaries of the Mississippi. The river levees broke in 145 places, 27,000 square miles were flooded, some to a depth of 30 feet.


Barr starts the book with an analysis of the debate after the Civil War between two engineers – Andrew A Humphreys, an arrogant and intense soldier appointed head of the Army Corps of Engineers; and James Eads, a bootstraps businessman, who first got his start dragging sunken boats out of the Mississippi. Humphreys was appointed because he had made a signature and ground-breaking study of the whole Mississippi basin and its flood potential. Eads, representing civilian engineers, spent his life on the river, and made his calculations based on his study of the real behavior of the river. Essentially, the debate centered over whether levies alone were enough to protect the surrounding areas to the rivers. The Corps said yes – even though Humphrey’s himself had shown this might not work. And Eads said no – levies alone would only raise the flood higher, and eventually be overtopped. He recommended that the Mississippi be allowed to drain into other rivers like the Atchafalaya, and some surrounding land areas. His thesis was that careful ‘diversion’ of flood waters into reservoirs, outlets and through cutoffs was the only way to prevent massive destruction.

Essentially, the Corps was wrong. In a debate with Eads and the building of jetties to create a boat channel in the Mississippi at the Gulf, they said it couldn’t be done. They lost that argument - the jetties worked, digging a deep channel using the natural flow of the river, which allowed big ships to reach New Orleans. However, they won the debate prior to 1927 regarding Mississippi flood control. As a result, the Corps started damming natural outlets, including the river just above Greenville, Mississippi. They were ready to dam the Atchlafaya in Louisiana too, which is the biggest natural outlet to the sea. Prior to Katrina, the Corps also claimed the levies around New Orleans were adequate for a category 5 hurricane. They actually are not recommending an improved levy system to this day. Having the Corps in control of the Mississippi river basin is a little like handing the freeway system to the Pentagon.


In spring 1927, levees upstream in state after state had failed. That still didn’t reduce the main pressure on the Mississippi, as some of the water just flowed back in the main channel. The main levee broke (called a ‘crevasse’) near Mound’s Landing, Mississippi, just above Greenville, and scoured out a long lake, still existing today. Hundreds of black levee workers drowned. It flooded the whole Mississippi “Delta” – the rich cotton land north of Vicksburg, in the Yazoo basin, that General Edgar Jadwin of the Corps said could never be flooded. The song, “When the Levee Breaks,” written by Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie, and later made famous by Led Zeppelin – that is this flood. It was one of many blues songs written about it.  As Barry himself puts it, 1927 was when the blues came to the Delta.

It was not just the flood waters that made people miserable, principally black sharecroppers. They were herded to work prior to, and after the flood, under compulsion and guns. Blacks lived in concentration camps, some right on the levee, eating inadequate food. Somehow whites were not qualified to do the backbreaking, grinding work of dam building and flood recovery. The sharecroppers were not allowed to leave by the Red Cross, especially in Greenville. They were physically and sexually abused by National Guard troops. Greenville had been dominated by liberal white plantation owners for many years, lead by the Percy family, who had even stood up to the Klan. But when the flood hit, the ‘liberal’ plantation owners showed their true colors, and imprisoned their black populations, as they were afraid to lose their labor. However, this very action created the exodus they feared. After the flood subsided, millions of former sharecroppers moved north to Chicago, Detroit and other cities, having had enough. Scratch a ruling-class southerner, get a Confederate slaver.


The ruling clique of New Orleans, an especially powerful and in-bred collection of bankers, dominated the Mardi Gras krewes and private clubs like the Louisiana Club, the most exclusive in the country. At that time, they were led by James P Butler, president of the South’s largest bank. To guarantee that New Orleans would not be flooded, Butler and his cronies got the government to agree to dynamite the levee in St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes, below New Orleans, thus releasing the flood waters into mostly white, Cajun areas. Butler and the New Orleans bankers promised the Cajuns restitution, and of course, reneged on their promise after the levee was destroyed. At the time, all factual indications were that the Atchafalaya would carry most of the flood waters straight to the Gulf, and they would NOT come through New Orleans. And that is what happened. Hence the levee did not need to be destroyed. This unjust dynamiting helped Huey Long win the governorship of the state, as he ran against the New Orleans ruling clique for what they did to the citizens of the state, among other things. Later, Long would pay with his life, when he was assassinated, by most careful accounts, by a policeman working for those very same bankers.


Calivin Coolidge appointed Herbert Hoover the head of the relief effort. Hoover was Secretary of Commerce. Hoover was an engineer too, and thought that a scientific and energetic approach to the disaster would solve the problems quickly. He was all over the newspapers, and it was this effort that led Hoover to being named candidate of the Republican Party, and then President. Hoovers fundraising from private sources did not really work, but he did put pressure on the federal government to get involved with aid. At the time, the Red Cross was a private organization, and the government had no role in disaster relief. Hoover was able to get the government to make small contributions, for the first time, to aide citizens. Coolidge, much like Bush, thought the problem was someone else’s responsibility.

At the time, black people still voted for Republicans, due to the heritage of the Civil War. Robert Moton, head of the Tuskegee Institute, was the modern representative of the Booker T Washington style of black leadership. After the flood, Moton went to meet Hoover. Moton, in exchange for a promise by Hoover that the Government would give black sharecroppers their own land, and break up the plantation system(!), promoted Hoover for president among the black population, and helped cover up the conditions that black people had been subjected to in the Delta during the flood. Of course, Hoover never kept his promise after winning the election. Moton was that flood’s Ray Nagin. Nagin voted for Bush in 2000, and worked hand in hand with the New Orleans ruling clique for their interest. He failed to prepare poor citizens of New Orleans for evacuation, and now colludes with white real estate interests to decimate the 9th and other wards and parishes.

This disaster, like Katrina, revealed the rotten parts of the ruling class – a plantation system rooted in slavery; a banking elite that would drown their fellow citizens property so that their property would survive; technocrats who make mistake after mistake; a political class that used disasters to gain political power, and then went on as if nothing had happened; and a black elite that covered for the white elite. However, the black population of Mississippi paid attention; the poor white ‘crackers’ of Louisiana paid attention, and both made progressive steps to change conditions. Katrina itself had some of the same effect, and played a role in turning part of the population against the Republican Party and its philosophy.

And I bought it in the Vieux Carre, on Chartres Street, in New Orleans –
Red Frog, 5/10/09

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