‘An epoch of unparalleled ruin’
Chances are better than average that all of the state, but particularly south Louisiana, will see some sort of flooding this spring. So, what’s the big news about that? Spring in south Louisiana means high water.
The flood of 1927 is generally regarded as the worst example of what can happen when a combination of melting snow and heavy rain begin flooding the Mississippi and the rivers that feed it. More recent floods, especially 1973, would likely have been worse without the levees and spillways that have been built since then. Folks in southeast Louisiana have yet to recover from major flooding in 2016.
But none of those have been surprises. We’ve seen, literally, hundreds of floods of one size or another. Hernando DeSoto, one of Louisiana’s earliest explorers, found the Mississippi River in flood in 1543. New Orleans had been settled for barely 10 years when it was inundated for several months in 1734, and it saw flood water at least once every decade until modern levee systems were built — and sometimes since then.
Smaller communities in south Louisiana have also had regular flood trouble, usually from water backing up from the Mississippi. There are several references in old newspapers to a flood that inundated a large part of south Louisiana in 1828. In August 1866, a correspondent for the New Orleans Times-Picayune described descending the Atchafalaya to reach “the portion of the planting section that was overflowed.” In 1874, a flood damaged a dam at the mouth of Bayou Plaquemine, allowing Mississippi River water to flow across south Louisiana. The U. S. Surveyor General for Louisiana estimated that one covered eight million acres in Louisiana and two million in Mississippi.
But the defining Mississippi River flood in south Louisiana before the big one in 1927 was probably one in 1882, and it began in almost the same way.
Heavy rains beginning on Feb. 19, 1882, led to a rapid rise of the Ohio River that caused flooding from Cincinnati to St. Louis and then sent water down the Mississippi into Louisiana. In early March, the Washington (La.) Argus warned readers in low-lying areas around the town that “an overflow was inevitable” and repeated the warning “in the most emphatic manner” several weeks later.
“The water will be poured over the alluvial country between the Atchafalaya river and the hills of St. Landry and Avoyelles parishes. To remain longer in those sections … subject to inundation is madness,” the newspaper warned.
The prediction proved correct. On April 1, the Opelousas Courier reported that Port Barre was “entirely submerged.”
“The last steamer brought to Washington a large number of refugees and stock from that and other points on the Courtableau and Atchafalaya, and has returned to relieve many others who are yet surrounded by the waters,” the Courier reported. “The waters are still rising. … The advance of the floods is within one and a half miles of Opelousas on the east, and still approaching. … The wires are down on this side of Alexandria, and the cable across Berwick’s Bay is gone. Messages are sent from Berwick’s City across to Morgan City by messengers, to be re-forwarded either way.
“Numbers of people from the section of country east of Opelousas are making their way toward our town, in carts, on horseback, on foot, and some even with wheelbarrows loaded with their most valuable earthly possessions, fleeing from the rising waters which have invaded their homes for the first time within the recollection of the oldest inhabitant.”
The New Orleans Times-Democrat picked up that narrative the next day saying that many of the refugees in Washington were found “in a most woeful plight, many of them having lived for days upon the roofs of their buildings, waiting succor.”
The Courier reported on April 8: “The present overflow, so far as St. Landry is concerned, has no counterpart within the memory of the oldest inhabitants. … Several hundred of our people, who had comfortable homes, fertile farms, and an abundance of stock, are now left destitute, and, at present, homeless. The floods have swept almost everything away: fencing, stock, and, in many cases, houses, furniture, provisions, etc. By those unfortunates the year 1882 will be remembered as an epoch of unparalleled disaster, ruin, and suffering.”
The danger had passed by April 15, but the devastation became clearer as water drained. The Opelousas Courier offered this assessment: “[The flood] destroyed many millions of dollars worth of property in six or seven States. … [sweeping away] every description of property, animate and inanimate, and in some cases human life. In … many portions of the Mississippi Valley the ruin will never be repaired, unless the national government rebuilds the levees from Memphis to the [Mississippi River] jetties.”
The damage prompted Congress to increase appropriations for the Rivers and Harbor Act to add $5.4 million ($150 million today) for better levees, drainage projects, and aid to flood victims.
President Chester A. Arthur vetoed the bill on Aug. 1, 1882, saying it was too expensive. Congress overrode his veto the following day.
A collection of Jim Bradshaw’s columns, Cajuns and Other Characters, is now available from Pelican Publishing. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 1121, Washington LA 70589.