THE GREAT MISSISSIPPI FLOOD OF 1927
was called "the greatest national calamity
since the Civil War." It flooded millions of acres across seven states, forcing more than 500,000 from their homes and inadvertently advancing the northward migration
of southern blacks. The parallels between that storm and Hurricane Katrina are remarkable. Explore the TIME Archives for reporting and commentary on these major disasters and other destructive floods on the Mississippi:
These were 7,500 square miles of rushing, swirling, mud-laden watery avalanche in which Death lurked for hundreds.... Levees crumbled in the night. Frosts added their malediction. Like a surly brown earth serpent uncoiling, the great river straightened its devious winding down a crow's-flight line of 600 miles.
May 2, 1927
Engineers believed that water drained through the Poydras cut would lower the Mississippi flood crest two to three feet, so that levees protecting New Orleans would not give way when high-water reached the city. When Oramel Hinkley Simpson, Governor of Louisiana, wrote his official announcement: 'I do hereby declare that a public emergency exists and an artificial break in the levee of the Mississippi River is hereby ordered to be created . . .,' he wrote also a death-sentence for two Louisiana parishes, St. Bernard and Plaquemines.
From At New Orleans
May 9, 1927
So the people of Melville went to bed. At daybreak next morning the Melville levee along the Atchafalaya gave way. Soon every street in Melville was a roaring torrent. Scrambling from their houses, lacking time even to clothe themselves, men, women and children half-waded, half-swam to unbroken sections of the levee. Five hours later Melville was from 10 to 15 feet under water with most of its houses sweeping in fragments toward the Gulf.
From Flood Continued
May 30, 1927
Speeches numerous and lengthy fell into two classes, depending on whether the speaker did or did not represent the Federal Government. Of the latter sort was Mayor Thompson's address which termed the flood 'an indictment of and challenge to the Federal Government,' something which 'might have been expected in China but not in the rich America with its boasted good government.'
Jun. 13, 1927
The people of Louisiana do expect that the next session of Congress will concern itself with the problem of preventing future floods, but they are most interested in having something done to alleviate the results of the flood that has just ruined them. What they most resent is the attitude, apparently prevailing at Washington, that the flood of 1927, while a terribly regrettable incident, is really over and that there is not much use crying over spilled water. In Louisiana, the flood is still a very live issue; nor is there any tendency to refer to it in the past tense.
From Land of Cotton?
Jul. 25, 1927
The committee's chairman, Representative Frank R. Reid of Illinois, declared at the outset that nothing but flood control would be undertaken, that party politics would be kept out....Eleven special trains rumbled into Washington. Out poured some 2,000 politicians from Middle America.
From Flood Control
Nov. 21, 1927
Hundreds of citizens of New Orleans rushed into their City Hall to make merry with expansive Mayor Arthur J. O'Keefe. The school children of New Orleans were instructed to contribute a penny each to buy a silver scroll of thanks for President Coolidge. Mayor O'Keefe called for thanksgiving services in all the churches. The Flood Control bill was law at last.
From Signed & Consigned
May 28, 1928
'Life in the Mississippi Valley of the future need not be poverty-stricken or precarious.... Its quality can be enormously improved. It need not go the way of the valley of the Nile, the valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates ... the stripped valleys of China....
From Mississippi Remake
Jan. 7, 1935
Quite as big as the Army's rescue job was its moral responsibility. It has been largely responsible for the spending of some $325,000,000 since the great flood of 1927, to make the valley flood-safe. Already last week criticisms of the Army's work were being heard. Some said that reforestation was more needed than the Army's levees, that reservoirs should have been built to control the floods at their source, on the headwaters of tributaries, instead of trying to deal with the floods after they were underway, that the Army's calculations of the 'super-flood' for which its levee system was built were very far astray because still higher flood stages were actually being recorded at Cairo and below.
From Yellow Waters
Feb. 8, 1937
Up & down the ravaged Mississippi Valley last week, at least 48,000 refugees straggled back from the hills to homes and farms reeking with flood muck. Truck gardens were gone. Livestock was drowned. In 40 days, at least 4,000,000 acres of Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Illinois had suffered an estimated $500 million damage—a cost only 25% below that of TVA, and slightly less than the money spent on Mississippi flood control in the last 16 years.
From "Duck Drownder"
Jul. 14, 1947
In New Orleans, America's most hedonistic city, the humid air last week was laden with the stench of death, the streets overlaid by a fetid crust of mud. Day after day, as the floodwaters seeped back into the Mississippi, armed police and health crews pursued the macabre task of recovering human bodies and countless animal carcasses.
From Up from the Deluge
Sep. 24, 1965
Enthusiastic about the success of huge, man-made walls in holding back nature's temperamental floods, an Army Corps of Engineers official said of the flood-control system on the Mississippi River: 'It's the greatest invention since women.'
From Winning Against Water
Apr. 23, 1973
While the grimmest of the doomsayers warn that New Orleans could be the next Atlantis, some laid-back residents are saying that it could just as easily become the next Venice and that after the deluge, the good times won't roll--they'll float.
From The Big Easy On the Brink
By Adam Cohen
Jul. 10, 2000
For years, researchers have described exactly what would happen if a megahurricane hit New Orleans and the surrounding Gulf region. They predicted that the city levees would not hold. Their elaborate computer models showed that tens of thousands would be left behind.
From How Did This Happen?
By Amanda Ripley
Sep. 12, 2005
Six months after Katrina, wide stretches of town remain dead zones, testimony not only to the power of the storm but also to the failure of politicians and bureaucrats to think on their feet.
From The Big Blank Canvas
By Cathy Booth Thomas, Richard Lacayo
Feb. 26, 2006
After 9/11, the people at the Boulder conference decried the nation's myopic focus on terrorism. They lamented the decline of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). And they warned to the point of clichŽ that a major hurricane would destroy New Orleans. It was a convention of prophets without any disciples.Ó
From Why We Don't Prepare for Disasterl
By Amanda Ripley
Aug. 20, 2006
Call it or the 'Katrina funk,' but it's all too real [EM] and it has real implications for the future health of the city. É The suicide rate has nearly tripled, depression is common, domestic abuse is on the rise, and self-medicating with booze is a favored method of forgetting.
From The Storm Lingers On: Katrina's Psychological Toll
By Cathy Booth Thomas
Aug. 28, 2006
We've been down this road before; violence is not new to the city. But the stakes are higher this time. The city's recovery is far from assured, and crime threatens to derail an already perilous rebuilding process
From Baghdad on the Mississippi?
By Russell McCulley
Jan. 12, 2007