High Water Mark
“The deluge roared like a furious bull, the winds howled like the braying of an ass. The sun had disappeared, the darkness was total.” Thus Outa-Napishtim relates the Deluge to Gilgamesh in a Sumerian text from the middle of the third century BC. Stories of deluge, flood and high water punctuate the legends and stories of societies across the planet and through the ages. The biblical tale of Noah's Ark, also found in the Quran, and Greek mythology speak of devastating great floods that obliterated all that proceeded, opening a new chapter in human history. Water is essential to life; but as we have often seen in Louisiana, and still very recently, it can take life, or at least make it extremely difficult. We like to enjoy our proximity to the water, to be able to enjoy fishing, swimming or boating or simply catch a cool breeze on the porch at the edge of the water at the end of the day. If you live long enough in our area, sooner or later, the water will not remain quietly in the bayou or the river and will demand the respect we owe it.
In American mythology, if one may put it this way, the Great Flood of 1927, whose 90th anniversary is commemorated this spring, holds a place similar to that of Gilgamesh or Noah. Apart from hurricanes, floods represent the greatest danger that nature has in store for us. It is not an exaggeration to say that the Great Flood of 1927 marked a turning point in the history of the United States. The first domino leading to the disaster fell in August 1926 when the central Mississippi basin received an enormous amount of rain that saturated the earth. Once on the ground, there is only one exit point for all this water, the Mississippi delta. On April 15, 1927, fifteen inches of rain fell on New Orleans in 18 hours, adding water to a cup already overflowing. It was not until August that the waters receded and the Mississippi finally slept in its bed. In the meantime, more than 270,000 square miles were flooded, more than 500 deaths were reported, and more than 700,000 US citizens were displaced. Agricultural and commercial losses were incalculable. The magnitude of the disaster, on a scale that no one could imagine, has inspired many narratives, stories and songs. We all know the story of the unnecessarily exploded levee downstream from New Orleans, flooding without reason St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes. Depending on the generation, one knows either the version by Memphis Minnie, by Led Zeppelin or even by Bob Dylan of "When the Levee Breaks." William Faulkner in "Old Man," later adapted for TV, tells a love story during relief operations. Even the policy of the U.S. federal government, hitherto hesitant to intervening in the daily lives of citizens, had to change course in the face of so much human suffering. This new attitude towards the role of government in domestic affairs paved the way for major national programs such as the New Deal during the financial crisis of the 1930s.
The Great Flood of 1927 also gave us the Flood Control Act of 1928, which authorized the Army Corps of Engineers to design and build the structures necessary to ensuring that the Mississippi no longer inflicts so much damage. In 1937, the Bonnet Carré Spillway opened for the first time, protecting the lower part of the flood delta. Since then, we keep a watchful eye on the “Father of Waters” so that it remains between the levees. We have built on other streams of water according to the same principles with the same success. Nevertheless, 90 years later, we are entitled to ask ourselves: “Have these measures not resulted in unforeseen secondary consequences? The suffocation of the estuaries? More high water elsewhere?” The floods last August showed us that the solutions, whatever they may be, must also be of epic proportions.