Few events have equaled the heartbreak created by the great floods that have swept over New Orleans since the 18th century. 

Among the greatest of these was the flood of 1871 when the rising river broke through the levees upriver at the little village of Bonnet Carré. Waters rushed across the land to Lake Pontchartrain and then down to New Orleans. In this woodcut print published on June 10, 1871, in “Every Saturday,” the British-born American artist Alfred Waud captured the visual drama of torrential floodwaters raging through the Bonnet Carré crevasse.

Here’s how one New Orleans newspaper reporter described the scene in May 1871:

“Standing on the broken edge of the levee, one can gaze down upon the huge volume as it rushes through the gap 1,200 feet wide, foaming and seething while the angry roar impresses a sense of fear…Over and through all the flood pours with a resistless force, rushing up and down the country as fiercely as if in search of something upon which to satisfy its vengeance.” 

When the floodwaters reached New Orleans, the city’s drainage system could not stop the on-coming tragedy. Much like Hurricane Katrina in 2005, strong north winds, pushed rising water over the lake’s marshy banks and up the city’s canals, inundating everything in its way. Within hours, much of New Orleans sat under two to twelve feet of water. After a few days, floodwaters slowly retreated to the lake as people returned to salvage their homes and lives.

Ironically, the devastating event also had ecological benefits. For the next 12 years, the river’s sediment-rich water flowed through the Bonnet Carré crevasse, building up land in that swampy flood-prone region. In 1883 a new levee closed the breach, and in 1931 following the tragic Flood of 1927, the Army Corps of Engineers completed the Bonnet Carré Spillway, an engineering marvel that now protects the city.

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