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1927 Mississippi River flood


Floods on the Mississippi are nothing new. On March 18, 1543, Hernando DeSoto and his soldiers were passing through a native village at the confluence of the Mississippi and Arkansas rivers, near the spot where Rosedale is today.

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"The river entered with ferocity through the gates of the town," he writes, "and two days later they were unable to go through the streets except in canoes. . . it was a beautiful thing to look upon the sea where there had been fields, for on each side of the river the water extended over twenty leagues of land, and all of this area was navigated by canoes, and nothing was seen but the tops of the tallest trees."

Three centuries after DeSoto, people began building levees to control the river; after the levees were finished, they put towns and farms behind them. In the summer of 1926, heavy rains saturated the ground throughout eastern Kansas, Oklahoma, and the Ohio Valley. Rivers throughout the Midwest stayed abnormally high all winter. The rains began again in late January and did not stop for three months.
1927 flood map

The first levee break occurred a few miles south of Elaine, Arkansas, on March 29, not far from where DeSoto witnessed his flood. Over the next six weeks, more than 50 more levee breaks stretching from Illinois to Louisiana flooded 28,500 square miles that were home to more than 931,000 people (see map) and damaged 137,000 buildings. Heavy spring rains then added insult to injury, causing a second major flood in June.

The crest of the flood moved slowly - only ten miles a day in the lower reaches of the river - which made effective evacuation possible in some places. In the "sugar bowl" region of Central Louisiana, south of Alexandria, the Red Cross shuttled 110,000 Acadians and their livestock out of harm's way before the flood hit. People in other areas were not as lucky. The Red Cross rescued 330,000 who were stranded on rooftops, atop levees, or in the branches of trees.

A massive Red Cross relief campaign directed by Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover erected 154 tent cities in seven states, in which 325,554 people lived for up to four months. Most in the tent cities were African-American. Another 312,000 who stayed in their flooded homes or with friends were also fed and clothed during the relief campaign. The other 300,000 scattered. After the waters receded, the Red Cross returned refugees to their land and gave them a crop's worth of seeds.

Direct economic losses from the flood have been estimated at $246 million to $1 billion, or $2.6 to $10.1 billion in 2005 dollars. The indirect effects were far greater. Praise for the relief effort helped elect Herbert Hoover president, and sympathy for the victims helped pave the way for the New Deal.

Today, even more massive flood control devices seek to control the rivers, such as the dams of the Tennessee Valley Authority and massive concrete buttresses that separate the Mississippi from the Atchafalaya. But as hurricane Katrina showed, the levees are still vulnerable.

"The Floods of 1927 in the Mississippi Basin," Monthly Weather Review Supplement No. 29 (October 18, 1927)
American National Red Cross, The Mississippi Valley Flood Disaster of 1927 (1929)
Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How it Changed America, John M. Barry

Date: Sept. 15, 2005

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