At the end of 1926 and into 1927, melting snow in the
upper Mississippi River basin followed by heavy rains in the lower Mississippi
valley gave rise to a torrent of water rushing through South Louisiana and
resulted in more than 80 percent of St. Landry Parish being flooded.
High water remained in much of Acadiana from April through June and as late as August in some areas. The flood displaced tens of thousands of people and left them without a means of making a living afterward in the mainly agricultural-based economy of the region.
Flood refugees swelled St. Landry Parish's population by 41,000, or 77 percent, over its base population of 12,308, according to information from "Crevasse!: The 1927 Flood in Acadiana," by Glenn R. Conrad and Carl Brasseaux, published in 1994 by the University of Southwestern Louisiana.
"The flood of 1927 was a long one, beginning actually in 1926," Conrad wrote. "In December, 1926, and January 1927, heavy rains in the Ohio Valley caused that river to leave its banks. Likewise, heavy rains in Oklahoma, Arkansas, and northern Louisiana, also beginning in December, 1926, caused the Arkansas and Red rivers to fill to capacity. By February, 1927, it was generally agreed that all river storage of excessive water was near flood stage."
"In the spring of 1927, 16,570,627 acres (approximately 26,000 square miles) of prime farmland were submerged in 170 counties across seven states," according to Brasseaux in the book. "Floodwaters displaced an estimated 931,159 persons; 325,554 of these refugees sought shelter in Red Cross 'concentration camps,' while an additional 311,922 flood victims received Red Cross rations."
Refugee camps were set up in Opelousas and Lafayette, but people fleeing or forced from the flooding lands in St. Landry Parish went to friends' or relatives' homes in other towns including Washington, Sunset, Grand Coteau and Carencro, Mansura, Marksville, Bunkie, Baton Rouge and Alexandria. Brasseaux said refugees "generally faced three choices" when leaving their homes. They could stay with people they knew in other areas, "they could rent accommodations in local hostelries," or they could seek aid from the Red Cross in one of the camps, he wrote. "Without any financial means or local relatives, the overwhelming majority of refugees were compelled to seek out the charitable organizations."
"The flood caused crop losses of $101,562,395 and farm property losses of $23,086,150. The farm property loss totals reflect the drowning deaths of 165,298 heads of livestock and 1,010,375 poultry animals, but they do not indicate the damage sustained by homes, ancillary buildings, businesses, furnishings, fences, and farm implements. Red Cross reports indicate that 162,017 residences and at least 92,431 businesses were inundated and more than half of these structures sustained major structural damage," Brasseaux said in the book.
The first levee break in Louisiana was on May 3, 1927, near the town of Tallulah in Madison Parish. Levees began breaking down the line afterward, including one on May 14 on Bayou Courtableau between Port Barre and Washington.
"The Cabin Teele (near Tallulah) crevasse on the Mississippi River was responsible for flooding 6,200,343 acres of land in Louisiana and affecting 277,781 people. Overall, the 1927 flood in the area south of St. Louis flooded 16,570,627 acres in 170 counties in seven states... 41,487 buildings were destroyed. 325,554 people were cared for in 154 Red Cross camps, some for several months. It is estimated that between 250 and 300 people perished as a result of the flood," Conrad wrote.
Melville hit hard
Melville was one of the hardest hit towns in St. Landry Parish after the levee there broke on May 17.
"The flood of 1927, it was powerfully argued afterward, was the result of a 'levees only' policy adopted by the Mississippi River Commission for the approximate half century before the flood occurred," according to Conrad.
After the waters began rushing through Melville, the flood swept south across Port Barre, Krotz Springs, Arnaudville and up to Grand Coteau. It then continued southward, skirting Opelousas and Lafayette which were spared because of their location on the deltaic plain.
Conrad said in "Crevasse!" that a line runs north to south through Louisiana east of Opelousas and west of Arnaudville and Port Barre. "This demarcation between deltaic plain and prairie terrace bears many labels, but is probably best known in Acadiana as the coteau, or escarpment. For the Corps of Engineers, however, it is the west alluvial wall of the Mississippi River," Conrad said.
The wall is characterized by an immediate rise in elevation created by the river's wandering over 10,000 years, he said. The deltaic plain, the lowlands that were flooded in 1927, is between the west alluvial wall and the river's current location.
Disease followed flooding
Once the floodwaters receded, the problems continued for many people who came back to destroyed or severely damaged homes and crops. Livestock had to be located, especially if it was placed in the care of the Red Cross, and then try to get them home when many area highways were still underwater and most bridges below the prairie terrace had been destroyed by rushing water, "... and crossing swift-flowing, flood-swollen streams in small boats was both difficult and dangerous," Brasseaux wrote. He said the last of the refugees did not return home until August of 1927.
"Yards and fields were covered with debris and, in some cases, mouldering carcasses of dead animals," Brasseaux wrote. "Wells were contaminated and potable water was difficult, if not impossible, to find. Many former refugees consequently contracted typhoid fever from unsanitary water shortly after returning home."
"The travails of the former refugees collectively constitute perhaps the most poignant chapter of the flood's largely undocumented denouement," Brasseaux wrote.
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