My aunt Gloria was born in the summer of 1927 on the Westbank of the Mississipi River, in the little town of Edgard, Louisiana, about 30 miles upstream from New Orleans. But in the months leading up to her arrival, my grandparents worried she would be born elsewhere. The worst river flood in American history was underway, and the levee sat right outside their front door. No one knew for sure if the town would last the spring.
That was a bad year to live on the river, and so, of course, is this one. This weekend, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers decided to open the gates on the Morganza Spillway for the first time in forty years, I couldn’t help but think about one of the stories I’d grown up hearing about the Great Flood of 1927.
Both my mother’s and father’s families came from Edgard, and a number of my elders would talk about the floods from time to time. One particular detail always stood out. In the spring of that year, they said, the men in town—my mother’s grandfather among them—took turns patrolling the levee around the clock with rifles and shotguns. They did this because everyone knew there would be a breach, but no one knew where. The fear was that someone from the opposite bank would steal over in a rowboat and resolve the suspense with a few sticks of dynamite.
You didn’t have to use much imagination to picture what the consequences would look like. In 1912, the levee had breached at Killona, just outside the Edgard town limits on the downstream side. The water had scoured a “crevasse” in the adjoining farmland so substantial that a decent-sized body of water remains to this day. My father grew up fishing there; apparently the catfish are still biting.
As it turned out, by the time Aunt Gloria was born that September, the waters had receded with Edgard intact. In the end, no saboteurs came over from across the river—or at least none succeeded. (As I recall the way my late grandmother told the story, the folks on the Eastbank were patrolling their levee with shotguns as well.)
As is now well known, the levee was in fact blown elsewhere that year, a few miles below New Orleans at a place called Caernarvon. It wasn’t done under cover of night, though. The Times-Picayune greeted the event with upbeat banner headlines, and crowds flocked to watch the spectacle that was meant to save the Crescent City. It turned out to be an anti-climax; the demolition took several days. When it finally took, some 250,000 cubic feet of river water per second inundated the empty homes of 10,000 residents of St. Bernard and Placquemines parishes, most of whom would never be adequately compensated. It’s fairly certain now that the act was a waste; enough breaches had already occurred upriver that New Orleans wasn’t at risk.
With the Morganza spillway open this week, the vast Atchafalaya basin has become the relief valve for the cities and towns along the Mississippi in today’s Louisiana. After years of negotiation in the 1970s and ‘80s, the Corps of Engineers managed to reach a settlement with landowners in the basin, giving the agency not only flow easements but also development rights to property across the lower Atchafalaya, thus allowing it to keep the floodplain relatively free of building projects that would otherwise complicate decisions to open the spillway. It shouldn’t be surprising, but our modern flood control infrastructure is a feat of politics as much as engineering. And it allows us to marvel in hindsight that farmers used to patrol the levee against their neighbors when the water was high.