Several years ago I sat down with my mom and one of her cousins to talk about the Great Flood of 1927. They were both little girls then at a time of life when the adventures of a spring flooding disaster outshined the hardships created by it. The latter being for the grownups to worry about.
All along the state, the Mississippi River water, 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 lived in the Avoyelles Parish town of Bordelonville where the water in usually placid Bayou des Glaises was raised by the Atchafalaya River.
Family members evacuated to a Red Cross camp at Mansura, where the land is higher and where the girls 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 upended the containers and as it receded left a coating of pig fat on the walls. To melt it 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 were driven from their burrowed holes in the ground. In those days crawfish had not yet achieved its cult status and was 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 have 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 10 miles away from where my mom and family were encamped. A boychild 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 the state’s.
My Mom lived long enough to experience the state’s other great natural disaster, Hurricane Katrina in 2005. That time there was no adventure and certainly no free Hershey bars. Her last experiences of the state were of it recovering, just as she has 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.
Heavy rains forced some of the state’s small tributaries to flood last spring, but the Mississippi River, contained by superior levees and flood gates has a beautiful presence; powerful, picturesque yet, most of all — peaceful.