Wednesday, September 3, 2008

FLOODING

Yesterday, my daughter called and said she had been digging a trench in her yard in New Iberia because the rains following the Mighty Gustav had caused some flash flooding. She sounded calm, not resigned, and glad to be doing something to diminish the overflow in her domain.

This morning I have before me an arresting photograph of the Mississippi River flood of 1927, a picture of the Moreauville Crevasse taken during this flood which appears in LOUISIANA; AN ILLUSTRATED HISTORY by C. E. Richard. In the photograph, raging waters cover half of a Louisiana style hip-roofed house, and the picture evoked some nervousness in me.

In 1927, rain had fallen since August of the year before, and a succession of storms swelled the Mississippi and all its tributaries to the point of finally breaking the levees. Prior to the disaster, residents in New Orleans, like those today, had anticipated the river inundating the city. According to C. E. Richard in LOUISIANA; AN ILLUSTRATED HISTORY, in 1927, New Orleans was a commercially important city of the United States with double the economic wealth of other cities in the region. When stories of possible flooding surfaced, people began withdrawing their money from banks in New Orleans, and a group of New Orleans businessmen realized that the panic could ruin the city’s economy without the levee even overflowing. So they bought 80,000 pounds of dynamite and after several days of blasting, opened a crevasse in the levee 13 miles downriver from New Orleans. The surge inundated Plaquemine and St. Bernard parishes. Then another levee north of Baton Rouge gave way, as did other levees along the Mississippi upriver from New Orleans. Of course, the floodwaters didn’t inundate New Orleans, but the two neighboring parishes of St. Bernard and Plaquemines were destroyed. As a result of the disaster, within a year, a $300 million flood control plan for the Mississippi was instituted.

This wasn’t a pleasant story to read. It seems the businessmen who had ordered the dynamiting knew beforehand, through river control engineers, that the likelihood of a levee break in New Orleans wasn’t a threat; that levees breaking upriver would spare the city. The businessmen had sacrificed the two neighboring parishes to create confidence in New Orleans residents and investors that the city wouldn’t be inundated. Today, the Atchafalaya Basin, near New Iberia, provides a floodway that helps protect Baton Rouge and New Orleans from flooding. Through a system of flood plains, levees, and control mechanisms, the Basin carries the overflow from the Red River and Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico.

Well, this story is a long way from a backyard overflow; however, it’s an indication of where my thoughts lie this morning in the aftermath of Gustav. From my chapbook SOARING, published by Border Press, a “flooding verse” from the poem “Greenville:”

GREENVILLE, Verse IV

You can’t sit in the Delta
without smelling the sweat,

feeling their sweetness,
always taking care of white folk,

guiding them to places
to buy their books, sample the cuisine,

knowing just where to direct them,
just how to protect these white folk

who boasted they protected their blacks;

in 1927, promised them a flood camp…
and let them drown, while building a levee,

in the muddy stool of the Mississippi.

On a lighter note, an e-mail from friend Judge Anne Simon informs me that only last night, the Simons feasted on a court bouillon to die for, concocted with Rick Patout’s super fish stock and William Kyle’s fresh redfish fillets. Her son Jeff added that along with the caveats about downed power lines, people in New Iberia should be warned about overeating! Makes me want to head home to Louisiana, flood or no…
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