The Mississippi flood of 1927 was one of America’s worst natural catastrophes. More significantly, it became the catalyst for one of the most profound changes in the country’s social and political fabric.
The flood began in Cairo, Illinois on April 16. After six months of record rainstorms had swollen the Mississippi’s two main tributaries – the Ohio and the Missouri – to bursting point, and saturated the river basin further south with 40 cm (15 in) of rain in the preceding 24 hours, the first of 145 breaches in the levees released a wall of water that would eventually drown a total of 70,000 sq. km (27,000 sq. mi) across Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Missouri, and worst of all Arkansas. By May you could look out from Memphis bluffs over a lake 100 km (60 mi) wide, stretching beyond the horizon down the delta.
Nobody was in charge – before, during or after the disaster.
Levees were managed by a mixture of public and private resources, all of which used shoot-to-kill vigilantes to guard against sabotage (blow up one side of the riverbank, and the other side was guaranteed safety). Worse, the crisis revived barely latent racism across the former Confederacy. African Americans were rounded up at gunpoint to fight the floods. At Greenville, under 3 m (10 ft) of water, hundreds were swept away; and 10,000 were marooned on a tiny island of high ground while an entire rescue convoy was left empty rather than save them.
Despite evidence that New Orleans was not threatened, the white elite went ahead and dynamited the levee protecting St Bernard Parish, consigning 12,000 of the poorest African Americans there to death or destitution. In several cases, living people were stacked like bricks, three rows high, to hold back water until sandbags arrived hours later. Held as prisoners and forced laborers for no wage and no future, it was August before 330,000 African Americans were moved to 154 relief camps, and forgotten.
When was the Great Mississippi Flood: April to July 1927
Where was the Great Mississippi Flood: the Mississippi from Illinois to New Orleans, USA
What was the Great Mississippi Flood death toll: Officially, about 500 died and 700,000 were displaced. Both figures are grossly understated. When it became clear that they would not be receiving any of the money allotted as compensation, hundreds of thousands of African Americans migrated north.
The migration transformed the cultural and political development of the USA (and gave the world the Chicago blues). The flood gave Herbert Hoover (then Secretary of Commerce) the national profile that carried him to the presidency. The only significant legislative action was Calvin Coolidge’s Flood control Act, the largest public expenditure in history outside World War l. In the South, the horrific exploitation shredded the myth of a social contract between rich whites and poor blacks.
You should know: In a brilliant analysis called Rising Tide, John M Barry saw analogies with Hurricane Katrina: ‘Their struggle … began as one of man against nature, it became one of man against man. Honor and money collided. White and black collided. Regional and national power structures collided. The collisions shook America.’