When the levee broke at Melville on May 17, 1927, the
flood waters rose so fast in some communities that many local residents found
Elaine Andrepont of Opelousas recalls her mother, who was 19 at the time, telling her stories about being trapped with scores of other families at a sawmill in Palmetto.
Her family then lived in the compound of the Brewer-Nienstedt Lumber Company. "They were company houses. All the workers lived there," Andrepont said.
"When the flood waters started pouring into the area, all the workers gathered up their furniture and possessions and put them into the second floor of the Brewer-Nienstedt offices."
The families then took refuge in a number of boxcars that were located on a rail spur beside the sawmill. The elevated track and the wheels of the cars gained the families several precious feet of height above the rapidly rising water. "They ended up getting trapped in them," Andrepont said.
The Clarion-Progress newspaper in Opelousas reported that company officials sent out a desperate telegram calling for help: "The water has risen four feet since one o'clock. For God's sake do something."
The paper reported that approximately 100 men, women and children were trapped by flood waters that were rising two feet per hour.
"My mother told me they were trapped all night. It was very scary. She couldn't sleep because of the noise. She could hear the floating logs hitting up against the sides of the cars. She said the water got up to the doors of the boxcars before they got out," Andrepont said.
According to the newspaper, boats were dispatched as soon as the telegram was received at 8 p.m. on the 17th, but word did not come back to Opelousas that the people had been saved until 11:30 a.m. the next morning. That's when John Thistlethwaite, who had arranged for the dispatch of the government boats, reported the party had been brought to a high spot in Palmetto.
Andrepont said her mother, Augusta Bushel Bihm, told her that all the houses in the workers' compound were completely submerged. "The water went over the first floor of the office. It was pretty deep," Andrepont said.
But the houses must have been well-built, because she remembers living in that same house as a child. "My mother lived in that house when she came back from St. Francisville. The houses withstood the water. They were just across the road from the railroad track. Maybe the tracks acted as a barrier to protect them," Andrepont guesses.
Andrepont remembers one more story her mother told her about the flood.
"She was attending school in Melville at the time. There was no high school in Palmetto then. She told me the first floor was under silt after the flood. The sand came up to the second floor. The first floor became a basement after that because they couldn't dig it out," Andrepont said.
Ed Aguillard, who would later become principal of the school, says she's half right.
He said the school was buried in about three feet of sand. Instead of digging it out, a layer of concrete was poured on top of the sand and wooden floors were put over that.
"The ground floor of the school, which they tour down five or six years ago, began about the level of the old ground floor windows," Aguillard said.
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