“We Watched Everything Wash Away” Part 1: Storms, Floods, and Levee Breaks

EPISODE 3   (26:40)

1927 flood banner image1

Moreauville Crevasse, 1927 Flood

Hurricane season officially ended this past week! To celebrate the close of an uneventful season (thanks, El Nino!), the Center’s latest podcast centers around topics that are never far from the thoughts of those of us who live in Louisiana:  storms, floods, and levee breaks.

The Center holds several series that document our natural and man-made disasters. In this episode, we’ll hear from those who remember the 1927 Flood  and Hurricanes Audrey and Betsy.  With a lot of attention being paid to recent hurricanes, we thought it important to provide the historical context of Louisiana’s natural and man-made disasters.  So Part 2, which we’ll do later down the road, will focus on the storm season of 2005.

Those who remember the 1927 Flood, also known as the Great Flood, were teenagers or young children at the time, as reflected in their memories. They recall things at a child’s eye level:  filling sandbags, asking why the National Guard was patrolling, learning lessons about the unnecessary levee breach in St. Bernard Parish, and seeing the tent cities run by the Red Cross.  Their memories of this time allow us a peek into 1927.

Recollections of Hurricane Audrey come from a Red Cross nurse who helped victims when the storm hit the Gulf Coast in 1957 — exactly thirty years after the Great Flood — as the sixth deadliest hurricane in recorded history at that time.  And residents of the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans will share their survival stories about Hurricane Betsy, nicknamed “Billion Dollar Betsy,” which made landfall in 1965 and was the costliest hurricane up to that time.

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AUDIO EXCERPT TRANSCRIPTIONS AND CITATIONS

TUPIE HENRY is the key excerpt.  *For full transcription, see below.

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1927 Flood

Tupie Henry in 2007, eighty years after the Great Mississippi Flood

* TUPIE HENRY:  There was some talk about the levees weren’t going to be able to hold because it was a pretty big flood ahead of time. The water was coming down. Didn’t believe it. It wasn’t going to affect us. They didn’t believe that, but it just kept coming; not fast. Next morning you get up and it would be a little bit deeper, you could watch it rise.

There was a fellow that lived close to us, and it was a creek.  They called it Big Creek.  It was backing up, and he lost a fine pair of horses, work horses, because they got in too deep of water. He lost both horses because they took pneumonia. They got wet and they took pneumonia and died.  That’s when we heard that water was getting up pretty high.

My daddy had a volunteer job because it shut down all the farming, you know. So he volunteered with the other fellows, to get the other people out. they built a boat gas tank in it and hooked it up to that old T-model [Ford]. And they pulled all them people out the low places. The cows and the chickens and the dogs, whatever they had.

Henry, Tupie, interview by Hans Rasmussen, audio recording, 2007, 4700.1990.  Louisiana and Lower Mississippi Valley Collections, LSU Libraries, Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

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JOSEPH DUPONTI remember a lot about the 1927 flood. My grandmother’s house was two blocks from the levee. And when the flood came, I remember the National Guard unit was brought here.  And they camped.  They put tents in the courthouse lawn is where they put their tents.  They were there to patrol the levee.  Now as a kid, I couldn’t understand why they had to have soldiers walking up and down the levee.  And they told me, “Well, they’re afraid somebody’s going to blow a hole in the levee.”  I said, “Why would they do that?  They’d flood all themselves out.”  I couldn’t understand it, but what would happen is the people downriver . . . it happened in the Cajun.  They would come up river and plant an explosion to blow the levee to reduce the pressure of the water on them.  See?  That was the deal.

As a result of that, I remember before the National Guard came, the men had to go.  I remember my daddy had to go up there.  The men took turns and they had to bring a pistol with them.  Of course, Daddy didn’t know much about pistols, but I remember he had his pistol.  He’d go up there on the levee.  They would do two hours at a time or something to prevent people from coming up.  They didn’t know where they would do it . . . People were afraid they were going to come do it up here because the water was so high.  I can tell you about the water.  The levees weren’t as big as they are now.  But the water was up to the top of the levee.  To the top.  And there were predictions that there was more water coming…There were times when the river went above the levee.  Of course, the sandbags and the boards held it.  It trickled through, but it wasn’t any pile of water that came in.  I remember that.  I remember going up.  I remember those gunny sacks had a certain smell.  Whenever I’m around anybody loading dirt in sacks, that same smell is there, I don’t know what it is. But it’s the smell of gunny sacks that we had here…

Dupont, Joseph, interview by Jennifer Abraham, audio recording, 2001, 4700. 1409.  Louisiana and Lower Mississippi Valley Collections, LSU Libraries, Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
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Crevasse below New Orleans, old levee visible, 1927

Crevasse below New Orleans, old levee visible, 1927

ROBERT HASPEL:  Over Easter weekend, Good Friday, specifically, we woke up in the morning, looked out, and it had been raining torrentially the night before. The streets were all flooded.  Living there on Jefferson Avenue, had a neutral ground, and from side to side was water.  You couldn’t see the neutral ground, the water was over that.  And everybody thought the levee had broken.  Everything was flooded.  First time anybody had ever seen anything like that.  But the river was intact.  The levee was intact.  There was no problem there, but the city fathers were somewhat upset about it and they decided they had to relieve the pressure on the levees in New Orleans.  And they did so by dynamiting the levee, Poydras, which was a rather sparsely populated area of fishermen and trappers and so forth. At that time, the state promised to reimburse these people for the property loss. Rather curiously enough, my uncle’s father-in-law, Joseph Haspel, his father-in-law, was Simon Leopold. He built the levees, and was a rather important citizen down there.  He arranged that we would go down there.  We went down there to see what had happened. We got on a tugboat and we went down the river to there, to see the crevasse.  And it was really, it was one of the most devastating things I’ve ever seen. Burned in my memory, which I’ll never forget, was we went and stood on the levee, pretty far back, because it was being swept away.  I saw a log floating down with a rabbit on the log, and it just made me so sad at the moment to see. The devastation of these people was complete, and they really never were properly reimbursed for their losses.  That area really never recovered because shortly thereafter, the Depression hit.

Haspel, Robert, interview by Jennifer Abraham, audio recording, 2001, 4700. 1501.  Louisiana and Lower Mississippi Valley Collections, LSU Libraries, Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

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Bayou Des Glaises near Bordelonville, LA, 1927

MARSHALL LABORDE:  The reason I was told: The water in the Mississippi [River] was about to come over and it would have flooded New Orleans. So they broke the levee at Bordelonville and back at Moreauville, which flooded all that area to save New Orleans.

One thing my Daddy did to us, he took us to Bordelonville where they broke that levee.  They still have a crevasse.  You know what a crevasse is? They still got the crevasse, bigger than this house, where the water went through the levee and to the field.  Big hole and they never stopped it up as a memory.  He wanted us to know what it looked like.  They would say it wasn’t fair, hurtin’ some people to save others.  There was that belief.  What else could you say? That’s when they built Bonnet Carre [Spillway], right after that.

Laborde, Marshall, interview by Tatiana Clay, audio recording, 2007, 4700.1994.  Louisiana and Lower Mississippi Valley Collections, LSU Libraries, Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

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Victor Crawford, eighty years after the 1927 Flood

VICTOR CRAWFORD:  The flood started pushing the people out from down around Morning Ray in the low areas of Catahoula in Concordia Parish. Sicily Island is a high ground area. Originally it was named Florence, but it was confusing because there was another town in Louisiana by the same name. So they changed it to Sicily Island because when water was up we would be completely surrounded by flood waters. But, when the refugees started moving in we’d pass right by their refugee tent on our way home to school. I think they said it was some five hundred tents in that area at one time.

Crawford, Victor, interview by Hans Rasmussen, audio recording, 2007, 4700.1991. Louisiana and Lower Mississippi Valley Collections, LSU Libraries, Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

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Ida Turcan, 1998

Interviewee Ida Turcan

IDA TURCAN:   The most traumatic thing I remember at Audrey was a man coming to me with this story: He said, “I just found my little girl’s leg and we want to keep it until we find the rest of her body, so they can be buried together.” And I cried.

ADELE FOSTER: But you say they found the little girl?

TURCAN:  Yes. But some of them they didn’t. Of course, they had mass graves, you know.  And they ended up having to bury those people.  And I understood from Red Cross that lots of people — that were so poor that they couldn’t afford a funeral — did not identify their bodies when they knew it, because they knew they couldn’t afford to bury them. I think that’s sadder than anything.

Turcan, Ida, interview by Adele Foster, audio recording, 1997, 4700.0829.  Louisiana and Lower Mississippi Valley Collections, LSU Libraries, Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

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Hurricane Betsy

Interviews from the Hurricane Betsy Survivor Stories series are on the LOUISiana Digital Library:

http://www.louisianadigitallibrary.org/cdm4/browse.php?CISOROOT=/LSU_RBO

 

National Guard assists after Hurricane Betsy hits, 1965

The National Guard assists after Hurricane Betsy, 1965

IDA BELLE JOSHUA:  I moved in the Lower Ninth Ward in 1949. Our goal was to pay for our house, to educate our children, to travel, and Betsy came along and interfered with those plans that we had. We watched everything wash away.

Suddenly we heard something under the house go boom, and I didn’t know what it was. And so he ran back in, and he said, “Grab the kids and come on and get in the boat.” My husband and other men who had boats stayed down here for about a week rescuing people and bringing them over to the bridge. And then there were two coastguards that came down and rescued them, and I don’t know the number of people that died but it was very far and in between because we still were a community. We could have rode it out if it wasn’t for the explosion [levee break].

Betsy was a crisis that really created problems in this area. In some way it created problems. In other ways it stimulated the activists because after Betsy we started fighting for urban renewal. We sent representatives to Washington so we could legislature here so that we could have urban renewal.

Joshua, Ida Belle, interview by Nilima Mwendo, audio recording, 2003, 4700.1684. Louisiana and Lower Mississippi Valley Collections, LSU Libraries, Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

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NILIMA MWENDOWhen y’all were living in the evacuation center at the Municipal Auditorium, what were the issues of concern?

LUCY THOMAS:  Well, for one thing, it was overcrowded, and the people weren’t as friendly, you know. I was really glad to get out because I had all the kids with me. And I didn’t want them to be . . . in the building over the night, you know? They were overcrowded. They had people walking on one another. You’re trying to sleep, and everybody’s walking all around you. No bunks. And so I could remember nobody slept that night. [laughs] We stayed in one little corner, you know. Like wherever we was, but we was in one little corner. . . . 

And so, girl! That water came in this house, you wouldn’t believe it! Like, just like a ship had then pass.  The furniture was turned upside down. Everything was tumbled up and down in this house. So that’s when I put all the kids in the attic. And I say, “Francis, that water’s up to the step.”  “Oh,” he says, “I don’t think it’s going to get any higher.” [laughs] And the water got so high! And that’s how we got caught in this house. Because if he had left when I first told him, we wouldn’t have got in it, either. A lot of people, like I said, they must have left when the water first was coming. See, because when that water was coming, it was coming in kind of slower.  Later on, that water was coming rough. Just like a dike just busted open. And that water started coming in here, boy, it wasn’t funny. And that was something.

MWENDO:  Never want to live that through again?

THOMASNo, indeed. That water was something.

Thomas, Lucy, interview by Nilima Mwendo, audio recording, 2003, 4700.1687.  Louisiana and Lower Mississippi Valley Collections, LSU Libraries, Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

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Hurricane Katrina

Gwen Ridgley, 2007

Gwen Ridgley, 2007

GWEN RIDGLEYI could hear Galaxy lapping water. You know how you can hear dogs lapping water?  The storm Betsy that passed in, was it 1965 or 1966? Quite a few people died in that storm, because they went to the attic and they didn’t have the proper tools to get out through the roof. But that was way past…We just used to talk about that all the time.

But now we’re confronted with this storm. So we did pull down the stairs to the attic. And I told Pat, I said, “I’m not going in the attic.” And we just laughed. And just at that point, the water hit the front door.  And her air handler is in the hallway, right there as you’re going up. And in there is where she kept her little miscellaneous tools. The saw, the hammer that we needed. And we got those things, and up in the attic we went!

We sawed and we hammered. And of course, once we hewn through the roof, we could hear the helicopters passing, the orange helicopters passing. And we got a little flag, a towel, whatever, and we would fly it through, but nobody never stopped. But we realized later they were getting people out of the water.  And I guess this was my first time really praying out loud. And I said, “Lord, lord, you’ve got to get us out of this, Lord.” And just then, the boat was coming.  And he was rescuing the other people across the canal there. Well, everything was water, but it is a canal that separated. So I yelled at the young man. I said, “Could you possibly help us out?” He said, “Oh, yes, I’ll be back for you.”

I said, “Don’t tell me you’re going to come back if you’re not going to come back.”  He said, “No, I wouldn’t do that to you. I’ll be back.” He said, “In about ten minutes, I’ll be back. Once I get all of these people out.”  And then he came back. And good Samaritan, right now I can’t even think of his name, but I pray for him every night, thanking God for him every night.

BLANCHE JEWELL:  So he wasn’t part of the rescue team?

RIDGLEY:  Not at all.  It was his own personal boat.

Ridgley, Gwendolyn, interview by Blanche Jewell, audio recording, 2007, 4700.1955.  Louisiana and Lower Mississippi Valley Collections, LSU Libraries, Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

 

IMAGES

Moreauville Crevasse, Jasper G. Ewing, ca. 1927, The Mississippi River Flood of 1927 Album, Mss. 4373, LLMVC

Tupie Henry, 2007, photograph by Hans Rasmussen

Crevasse below New Orleans, old levee visible, Jasper G. Ewing, ca. 1927, The Mississippi River Flood of 1927 Album, Mss. 4373, LLMVC

Bayou Des Glaises, Jasper G. Ewing, ca. 1927, The Mississippi River Flood of 1927 Album, Mss. 4373, LLMVC

Victor Crawford, 2007,  photograph by Hans Rasmussen

Ida Turcan, 1998

The National Guard assists after Hurricane Betsy, 1965

Gwendolyn Ridgley, photograph by David Breidenbach

 

MUSIC

King, Freddie, interview by Tatiana Clay and Eric Julien, audio recording, 2008, 4700.1921.  Louisiana and Lower Mississippi Valley Collections, LSU Libraries, Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

 

This podcast is copyrighted by LSU Libraries Special Collections.

For a full transcript of the podcast, please contact Jennifer Abraham at jabrah1@lsu.edu.

 

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Welcome to the blog and podcast for the Williams Center for Oral History. Our goal is to provide updates on Center projects and activities as well as to share with you on a regular basis audio excerpts from our collection.

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