NO OFFICIAL FIGURES summarize the deaths and flooding along tributaries from Oklahoma to West Virginia, but along the lower Mississippi alone the flood [of 1927] put as much as 30 feet of water over lands where 931,159 people—the nation’s total population was only 120 million—had lived. Twenty-seven thousand square miles were inundated, roughly equal to Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Vermont combined. As late as July 1, 1.5 million acres remained underwater. Not until mid-August, more than four months after the first break in a mainline Mississippi River levee, did all the water leave the land.
An estimated 330,000 people were rescued from rooftops, trees, isolated patches of high ground, and levees. The Red Cross ran 154 “concentration camps,” tent cities, in seven states—Kentucky, Tennessee, Missouri, Illinois, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Louisiana. A total of 325,554 people, the majority of them African-American, lived in these camps for as long as four months. An additional 311,922 people outside the camps were fed and clothed by the Red Cross. Most of these were white. Of the remaining 300,000 people, most fled; a few cared for themselves, surviving on their own food and on their own property.
Deaths occurred from Kansas, where thirty-two towns and cities were inundated, to West Virginia. Officially, the Red Cross reported 246 people drowned; the U.S. Weather Bureau reported 313. (The Red Cross confidentially warned [Commerce Secretary Herbert] Hoover its figures on deaths were “not necessarily reliable.”) Official sources attributed an additional 250 deaths indirectly to the flood. But the death toll almost certainly ran far higher. It was impossible to know how many bodies were buried beneath tons of mud, or washed out into the Gulf. The head of the National Safety Council estimated deaths in the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta alone at 1,000.
The Red Cross estimated direct economic losses at $246,000,000. The U.S. Weather Bureau put direct losses at $355,147,000. Unofficial but authoritative estimates exceeded $500,000,000; with indirect losses, the number approached $1,000,000,000, large enough in 1927 to affect the national economy.
The river itself left a legacy. The Mississippi carried only 1,500,000 cubic feet of water per second past New Orleans to the sea, while the artificial crevasse in St. Bernard carried 250,000 cfs. An additional 950,000 cfs moved down the Atchafalaya to the Gulf; had the Mississippi River Commission closed the Atchafalaya, as it had wanted to do, the increased Mississippi flow might have destroyed New Orleans.
The enormous Atchafalaya current helped create a new problem. Before the Civil War, one could cross the head of the Atchafalaya at low water on a plank 15 feet long. The river had long since enlarged, and the 1927 flood further scoured the channel, widening and deepening it, making the Atchafalaya hungry for still more water. It began threatening to claim the entire flow of the Mississippi, luring the Mississippi away from Baton Rouge and New Orleans….
For months the flood dominated the nation’s newspapers. For months, every single day the New York Times ran at least one story on the flood. For nearly a month, every day it ran a flood story on page 1. It was page 1 in Seattle, page 1 in San Diego, page 1 in Boston, page 1 in Miami. In the interior of the country, in the Mississippi valley itself, the story was bigger. Newspaper editors later overwhelmingly named the flood the greatest story of 1927, even though on May 22, Charles Lindbergh had, temporarily, driven the flood off the front pages of their newspapers.
But if [President Calvin] Coolidge did nothing, Hoover did everything. For months hardly a day passed without his name appearing in a heroic and effective posture, saving the lives of Americans. He was the focus of newsreels, of magazine feature stories, of Sunday supplements.
1927 was also the year in which Babe Ruth set a new record by hitting 60 home runs in a season.