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On the morning of Good Friday, April 15, 1927, Seguine Allen, the chief engineer of the Mississippi Levee Board in Greenville, Mississippi, woke up to the sound of running water. Rain was lashing the tall windows of his home near the great river with such intensity that the gutters were overflowing and a small waterfall poured past his bedroom. It worried him. He was hosting a party that day, but his concern was not that the weather might keep guests away. Indeed, he knew that the heavy rain, far from decreasing attendance, would bring out all the community's men of consequence, all as anxious as he for the latest word on the river.
Tributaries to the Mississippi had already overflowed from Oklahoma and Kansas in the west to Illinois and Kentucky in the east, causing dozens of deaths and threatening millions of acres of land. The Mississippi itself had been rising for weeks. It had exceeded the highest marks ever known, and was still rising. That morning's Memphis Commercial-Appeal warned: "The roaring Mississippi river, bank and levee full from St. Louis to New Orleans, is believed to be on its mightiest rampage....All along the Mississippi considerable fear is felt over the prospects for the greatest flood in history."
Now it was raining again. Hours later, with the rain heavier yet, the men of consequence appeared at Allen's door. Even LeRoy Percy appeared.
No man mattered more in the Mississippi Delta, or perhaps anywhere the length of the river, than he. Sixty-seven years old, still imperious, thick-chested and vital, with measuring eyes, a fin-de-sicle mustache, silver hair, and frock coat, he seemed a figure from an earlier age. If so, he had been a ruler of that age, and in the Mississippi Delta he ruled even now. Not only a planter and lawyer but a former U.S. senator, an intimate of Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, and a director of railroads, the Carnegie and Rockefeller Foundations, and a Federal Reserve bank, Percy's political and financial connections extended beyond Washington and New York to London and Paris. Only his closest friends addressed him by his first name.
At Seguine Allen's party that afternoon it was "Senator Percy, how are you?" and "Senator Percy, good to see you," and "Senator Percy, do you think the levees will hold?" Percy began to answer, but, as if to mock anything he might say, thunder shook the house, wind rattled the windows, and the rain suddenly intensified. The party fell silent. Men and women listened, holding food and cocktails the Greenville elite separated themselves from hill-country Baptists by ignoring Prohibition with great show uneaten and unsipped in their hands. The rain pelted the roof, the windows. The sounds of the black musicians echoed hollowly, then the musicians too fell silent before the great booming cracks of thunder and pelting rain.
It had rained heavily for months. Henry Waring Ball, whose social rank fell somewhere between friend and retainer of the Percys, had recorded it in his diary. On March 7 it had been "rainy"; March 8, "pouring rain almost constantly for 24 hours"; March 9, "rain almost all night"; March 12, "after a very stormy day yesterday it began to pour in torrents about sunset, and rained very hearty until 10....[At] daylight, a steady unrelenting flood came down for four hrs. I don't believe I ever saw so much rain"; March 18, "a tremendous storm of rain, thunder and lightning last night, followed by a tearing wind all night....Today is dark, rainy and cold, with a gale blowing"; March 19, "rain all day"; March 20, "still raining hard tonight"; March 21, "Quite cold. Torrent of rain last night"; March 26, "Bad. Cold rain"; March 27, "still cold and showery"; March 29, "very dark and rainy"; March 30, "too dark and rainy to do anything." April 1, "Violent storm almost all night. Torrential rains, thunder, lightning, high winds"; April 5, "much rain tonight"; April 6, "rain last night of course."
Finally, April 8, Ball wrote that "at 12 it commenced to rain hard. I have seldom seen a more incessant and heavy downpour until the present moment. I have observed that the river is high and it is always raining...we have heavy showers and torrential downpours almost every day and night....The water is now at the top of the levee."
Since then, the Mississippi River at Greenville had risen higher than it ever had before. Now came this new rain, the heaviest yet.
Indeed, no one present at Allen's party knew it, but the storm of Good Friday, 1927, was extraordinary for its combination of intensity and breadth. That day the great storm would pour from 6 to 15 inches of rain over several hundred thousand square miles, north into Missouri and Illinois, west into Texas, east almost to Alabama, south to the Gulf of Mexico. Greenville would receive 8.12 inches of rain. Little Rock, Arkansas, and Cairo, Illinois, would receive 10 inches. New Orleans would receive the greatest rainfall ever known there; in eighteen hours officially 14.96 inches fell, more in some parts. That amount, in less than a day, exceeded one-quarter the average precipitation New Orleans received in an entire year.
Senator Percy, do you think the levees will hold?
Allen addressed the question, reminding everyone that the levees were far stronger than they had ever been. They had held a record flood in 1922. They would hold this one. They would have the fight of their lives, but the levees, Allen assured everyone, would hold.
Percy suggested that they inspect the levees right now. Perhaps the storm would uncover a weakness they could address. Others nodded. Two dozen men, including Allen, put on their gun boots and raincoats, piled into their cars, and drove the few blocks to the center of downtown, where the levee rose up abruptly. A few decades earlier the levee had been blocks farther west, but one day the river had simply devoured it, taking much of the old downtown as well. Since then the city had covered the levee adjacent to downtown with concrete to prevent a further loss to the river and to serve as a wharf, and the men drove up the slope of the levee itself, parking on its crest, even with third-story windows in the office buildings, high above the city streets, high above millions of acres of flat, lush Delta land. A hundred yards upriver, where the concrete ended, a work gang of a hundred black men under one white foreman struggled in the driving rain to fill sandbags. For hundreds of miles on both sides of the river, other black work gangs were doing the same thing. Then Percy, Allen, and the others climbed out of their cars; leaning against the wet wind, their boots seeking a purchase on the soaked concrete, they faced the river.
It was like facing an angry dark ocean. The wind was fierce enough that that day it tore away roofs, smashed windows, and blew down the smokestack 130 feet high and 54 inches in diameter at the giant A.G. Wineman & Sons lumber mill, destroyed half of the 110-foot-high smokestack of the Chicago Mill and Lumber Company, and drove great chocolate waves against the levee, where the surf broke, splashing waist-high against the men, knocking them off balance before rolling down to the street. Out on the river, detritus swept past whole trees, a roof, fence posts, upturned boats, the body of a mule. One man working on the levee recalled decades later, "I saw a whole tree just disappear, sucked under by the current, then saw it shoot up, it must have been a hundred yards away. Looked like a missile fired by a submarine."
The river seemed the most powerful thing in the world. Down from the Rocky Mountains of Colorado this water had come, down from Alberta and Saskatchewan in Canada, down from the Allegheny Mountains in New York and Pennsylvania, down from the Great Smokies in Tennessee, down from the forests of Montana and the iron ranges of Minnesota and the plains of Illinois. From the breadth of the continent down had come all the water that fell upon the earth and was not evaporated into the air or absorbed by the soil, down as if poured through a funnel, down into this immense writhing snake of a river, this Mississippi.
Even before this storm, levees along every significant tributary to the Mississippi had been shouldered aside by the water. In the East, Pittsburgh had seen 8 feet of water in city streets; in the West, outside Oklahoma City, 14 Mexican workers had drowned. And the Mississippi was still swelling, stretching, threatening to burst open entirely the system designed to contain it.
At the peak of the great Mississippi River flood of 1993, the river in Iowa carried 435,000 cubic feet of water a second; at St. Louis, after the Missouri River added its waters, it carried 1 million cubic feet a second. It was enough water to devastate the Midwest and make headlines across the world.
In 1927, a week after and a few miles north of where Percy and the others stood upon the levee, the Mississippi River would be carrying in excess of three million cubic feet of water each second.
LeRoy Percy did not know the immensity of the flood bearing down upon him, but he knew that it was great. His family had fought the river for nearly a century, as they had fought everything that blocked their transforming the domain of the river into an empire, an empire that had allowed its rulers to go in a single generation from hunting panther in the cane jungle at the edge of their plantations to traveling to Europe for opera festivals. The Percys had fought Reconstruction, fought yellow fever, fought to build the levees, all to create that empire. Only five years earlier, to preserve it, LeRoy had fought the Ku Klux Klan as well. He had triumphed over all these enemies.
Now the river threatened those triumphs, threatened the society his family had created. Percy was determined that, even if the river burst the levees, that society would survive. He had power, and he would do whatever was required to preserve it.
Four hundred miles downriver from Greenville, the Mississippi flowed past New Orleans. There, a handful of men were Percy's peers, hunting and investing and playing poker with him, and belonging to the same clubs. Some were men of the Old South, controlling hundreds of thousands of acres of timber or sugar cane or cotton. Some were men of the New South, financiers and entrepreneurs. Some, like Percy, bridged those worlds. For decades they had controlled New Orleans and the entire state of Louisiana.
The river threatened their society too. And like Percy, they would do whatever was required to preserve it.
Their struggle, like Percy's, began as one of man against nature. It became one of man against man. For the flood brought with it also a human storm. Honor and money collided. White and black collided. Regional and national power structures collided. The collisions shook America.
On the levee in downtown Greenville, the men watched the river rage for a few more minutes. The rain stung. The river was, literally, awful. Yet they took a certain pride in its awfulness, in the greatness of the river. Confronting it made them larger. For a few more minutes, frozen by it, they stood there.
When they left, neither Senator Percy nor anyone else, not even Seguine Allen, the host, returned to the party. They would not go home for hours; some would not go home for days. They had work to do.
Copyright © 1997 by John Barry