Of Masks, Disasters and Governors

New Orleans Poydras Levee 1927
An aerial view, Louisiana, May 3, 1927 (AP Photo)

 

Ninety-three years ago the Governor of Louisiana was Oramel H. Simpson, who had ascended to the post from being Lt. Governor. Among his accomplishments was to sign a bill outlawing public masking except on Mardi Gras and at masquerade balls. The reason: to discourage activity by the Ku Klux Klan. By contrast, the current Governor, John Bel Edwards, is urging citizens to wear masks in public places. The reason: to stifle the spread of the coronavirus. All phases of history have their burdens.

Simpson, an interim governor who succeeded to higher office at the death of the incumbent Henry Fuqua, also, like Edwards, faced a major public health crisis.  Ninety three years ago this week there were still approximately 60,000 refugees in Louisiana who had been relocated to Red Cross camps because of what is now known as the Great Flood of 1927.

I once sat down with my mom and one of her cousins to talk about THE flood. They were both little girls then at a time of life when the adventures of a Spring flooding outshined the hardships created by it. The latter being for the grownups to worry about.

All along the state, the Mississippi River, which had already been exceedingly high when pushed from the upriver states, spilled onto Louisiana soil. Much of it had been funneled through the connecting bayous and rivers spreading equal flooding for all.

My relatives had lived in the Avoyelles Parish town of Bordelonville, where the water in usually placid Bayou des Glaises had been raised by the Atchafalaya River.

Family members had been evacuated to a Red Cross camp at nearby Mansura – where the land is higher, where the kids could be wide-eyed with the experience of living in tents and where Red Cross workers handed out free Hershey bars.

Going home was not quite as much fun. In those days, folks cooked with lard, which was kept stored in barrels near the kitchen. The high water had upended the containers and as it receded left a coating of pig fat on the walls. To melt if off, a bucket brigade was formed passing cans of hot water from a fire in the yard into the house where the containers were splashed on the already saturated walls. Flood insurance? FEMA? What were those?

Food was scarce. One of the few products that nature provided was crawfish, which had been driven from their burrowed holes in the ground. In those days, crawfish had not yet achieved their cult status and were regarded as a junk food. Nevertheless, these hearty people of French, but not Cajun, ancestry gathered the critters and boiled them in salt, the only seasoning they had.

Ultimately, the flood would have an impact on the state’s history, culture and politics. A system of spillways was built to divert high river water. Many of the bayous were subdued by locks and dams. (Once feral Bayou des Glaises was among many that were totally domesticated.). In 1974 Randy Newman recorded a song called “Louisiana 1927” telling about the flood’s despair:

The river rose all day

The river rose all night

Some people got lost in the flood

Some people got away alright

The river has busted through clear down to Plaquemines

Six feet of water in the streets of Evangeline

Something else significant happened in 1927 near the town of Marksville, probably not more than ten miles away from where my mom and family were encamped. A child was born. His name was Edwin Edwards. He would grow up seeing the hardships of rural Louisiana and hearing the passionate populist rhetoric of Huey Long, who ran for governor in 1928. The flood would mold Edwards’ politics, and that of the state.

My mom lived long enough to experience another great natural disaster, Hurricane Katrina in 2005. That time there was no adventure and certainly no free Hershey bars. Her last experiences of Louisiana were of it recovering, just as she had seen it do after 1927. In between, she had lived a good Louisiana life; knowing the fragrance of sweet potatoes in the oven, seeing the bayou banks in the spring when they are green and flowery; speaking with relatives in a unique Franglais dialect. She even developed an appreciation for crawfish boiled to be spicy.

Edwin Edwards, no relation to the present governor, would so far experience three natural disasters; the flood, Katrina and now COVID-19. To borrow from Randy Newman:

Some people got lost in the flood

Some people got away alright.

 

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BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT: Errol’s Laborde’s books, “New Orleans: The First 300 Years” and “Mardi Gras: Chronicles of the New Orleans Carnival” (Pelican Publishing Company, 2017 and 2013), are available at local bookstores and at book websites.

WATCH INFORMED SOURCES, FRIDAYS AT 7 P.M., REPEATED AT 9:30 A.M. SUNDAYS.WYES-TV, CH. 12.

 

 

 

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