New Orleans came within a whisker of being destroyed once before. The threat came not from the ocean, but from the Father of the Waters, the Mississippi. In the spring of 1927 the great river flooded on a scale not seen before or perhaps since. (The full story is told in “Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. . .” by John M. Barry, a book which cannot be overpraised.)
Before the flood was history an area of thousands of square miles stretching southward from Illinois to the Gulf of Mexico was under as much as 30 feet of water. Seven hundred thousand people were turned into refugees in a nation which had less than one third of the population it has now. Months were to pass before the water receded.
New Orleans was saved from destruction by dynamiting the levees on the Mississippi side of the river. People were stranded on roof tops, there was nothing to eat, no potable water. Thousands of black people clambered up on top of the levees where they clung, waiting to be evacuated by the steamers making their way down the river.
The steamers came for whites only. The black people were not allowed on boats, one of whose steam calliopes played “Bye, Bye Blackbird” as it pulled away. The whites needed the blacks’ labor. They feared that, once in a refugee shelter outside of the Mississippi, their black sharecroppers would never come back.
The National Guard arrived. Black men were hunted through the flood waters and forced into “concentration camps,” as they were then called, and fed only if they worked. It wasn’t slavery, not exactly slavery anyhow.
Nowadays a black man is mayor of New Orleans but power is where the money is. . . in the white people’s banks. In 1927 Herbert Hoover, in charge of rescue operations, smothered criticisms of the camps. President Bush did photo ops hugging black youngsters. Back in 1927 the black people feared the Guard which rushed in; now they pray for the Guard which never seemed to come. Then the whites needed the black hands and backs. Now? If those people stinking up the Superdome and defecating in their wheel chairs were to be bused away to Texas for good, well. . .