When the Levee Breaks

Last updated on September 23, 2011

Yep, it’s Zep. But it’s also much older than those particular gods themselves. The song originally referred to the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and was written by Blues duo Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie (the only female blues artist considered on par with the menfolk of her era).

The song doesn’t just refer to one levee. In 1927, from around New Year’s all the way up until late April, the Mississippi river broke through a grand total of 145 places. Almost 250 people were killed, millions of dollars of damages (in 1927-era currency. Today, it’d be billions), and nearly 1 million people were displaced in 7 states.

For what might seem like an all-but-forgotten tributary (see what I did there) of interesting environmental history,the 1927 flood prompted the rise and fall of a president, race relations, a revised attitude towards man’s ability to affect the might of nature, and some truly impressive engineering.

Dominating the Indomitable

The US Army Corps of Engineers (still responsible for this type of resource management, in case you were wondering) was of the firm belief that Big Muddy could be controlled through a system of levees. If and when the river rose, so would the levees. But with the incredible amounts of rain pounding an already-waterlogged river basin for that entire spring, the levees could only hold so much. They failed.

Conscripted Manpower

In many places, “volunteers” were tasked with sandbagging levees, building them higher to hold back the river. These “volunteers” however, weren’t there of their own volition. Most were plantation workers, conscripted by local government and National Guard into labor camps right on the levees. Most were African-Americans. And when the levee broke in Greenville, MS, letting through as much water as Niagara Falls, the African-Americans were trapped on the 8-foot-wide levee with no food or water, and little shelter. They were refused evacuation under pressure from the planters in the region who knew they’d lose their cheap labor force if the workers were able to relocate north. Red Cross relief didn’t come without a price, and later documentation details how the whites of the area kept the best food for themselves to prevent the African-Americans from expecting too much.

In other areas, African-Americans were conscripted to build levees at gunpoint and prevented from evacuating. The conditions at the refugee camps occupied by African-Americans were documented by an influential race-relations organization called the Colored Advisory Commission, though, and would play a part in the rise and fall of a president.

Hero’s Rise and Fall

During the flood events, President Calvin Coolidge refused, in spite of protests and pleas from local and state officials to devote his attention to the crisis, to either ask for national help or even visit the huge swath of the country suffering under the river’s wrath. His Secretary of Commerce, however, a fellow by the name of Herbert Hoover, headed up a task force devoted to dealing with the emergency. Hoover negotiated with railroads and shipping to provide free transportation for workers shoring up levees, and relief coming from the Red Cross, and managed refugee camps for all the displaced people along the floodway. As a result of this, Hoover was lauded as a great humanitarian and capable engineer, and those qualities propelled him to the Republican nomination in 1928, and to the Presidency.

But the Colored Advisory Commission’s findings on the treatment of African-Americans in the refugee camps wasn’t to be forgotten. Hoover exchanged the Commission’s silence in favor of greater justice in race relations when he became president, and the Commission acquiesced. Four years later, when those promises failed to manifest, it was the exposure of the treatment of the African-Americans, the unfair and inequitable dispersal of relief supplies, and the pitiful assistance granted to displaced African-Americans that turned the Black vote against Hoover, and in favor of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s ideal that government have a “continuous responsibility for human welfare.” Blacks would not be silenced in the face of the injustices done to them in the name of emergency.

The Jadwin Plan and Project Flood

The failures of the levees caused the Army Corps of Engineers to re-think its belief in its ability to control the river. “Project Flood” was approved by Congress in 1928 and incorporated better, more stringent standards for levees. Project Flood also put in place the companion engineering suggestions of James Buchanan Eads, one of the greatest engineers of the time (and some would say all time) for digging cutoffs (to cut out twisty bends in the river), overflow lakes, and the river control structure and concrete dam that releases some of the Mississippi into the Atchafalaya river.

The 1928 flood plan is the standard we use today. Time will tell if it still meets today’s needs.


Read More About It:

National Geographic News

Robert Russa Moton and the Colored Advisory Commission

Red Cross Flood Relief Efforts

Red Cross Tornado Relief Efforts

Athena Grayson Written by:

Space Opera with Sizzle | Sorcery with Spice | Fun Fantasy with Feels

One Comment

  1. May 13, 2011

    Argh! Now I have that song stuck in my head! But some interesting history info, which I always enjoy!

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