The 1927 flood was really not unique since there had been floods from time immemorial in the flood plain of the Mississippi river. And yet most of St Landry Parish is not flood prone. Opelousas and areas to the west and south of the city, for example, are not subject to flooding. But Port Barre, Leonville, Arnaudville, and Melville are much lower in elevation.
The coteaus or hills which divide the parish into the elevated prairie sections and lowlands are the reason for the difference in elevation. On trips between Leonville and Opelousas, all of us make the journey between the lowlands to the prairie section. In reality these hills which are encountered about seven miles from Leonville on La highway 31, just immediately west of Prairie Laurent which divide the alluvial deposits and the prairie sections are not unique. Each river in a flood plain has these ``escarpments'' which are made as the river erodes the land in its meanderings on its trip to its ultimate outlet (In this case -- in the Gulf of Mexico.) In our area these hills are simply the westernmost boundary of the Mississippi's past wanderings.
This has been going on for many thousands of years. These series of hills are about 10,000 years old. From a geological perspective, the prairies in the central and western portion of the parish are much older than the area near Bayou Teche because that area is composed of soil deposited in previous very recent floods. But enough about physical geology!
But here we begin more recent history. Floods occurred in 1849, 1859, 1871, 1874, 1903, 1912, and records kept by early Spanish and French colonial settlers from the early 1600's revealed the devastating effect of the floodings.
The high water of 1927 had its origin in extremely heavy rains in the midwest, Oklahoma, Arkansas and northern Louisiana. As water levels in the Mississippi and its tributaries rose, concern was expressed that if the levee system on Bayou des Glaises broke, havoc would occur, not only in Avoyelles parish, but in St Landry Parish immediately to their south.
Then it happened. On May 13, 1927, near Moreauville, the levee broke many inhabitants of the lower areas began departing for Mansura which was on a high bluff and thus protected from high water. Then other levees began breaking at Bordelonville, Cottonport and evacuations speeded up. By May 15 of 1927, the high water had almost reached St Landry Parish, and evacuation by rail was begun at Melville, with the refugees destination being Opelousas. The next day the raging water was almost at LeBeau and Palmetto.
But on May 16th, problems began south of Leonville and Arnaudville as a levee gave way near Cecilia and flooding began in St Martin Parish. Meanwhile, on May 17th, in the Village of Melville, a large levee collapsed and the Atchafalaya River was drowning the the area. The Melville water met the Avoyelles Parish water and combined forces just north of Port Barre. Since April of that year, heavy rains in south Louisiana finally caused Bayou Vermilion to overflow its banks. With the combination of all high water sources converging, disaster in Teche country was rapidly becoming a reality.
But flood histories are more than just the enumeration of facts and statistics. There are personal tragic human disasters akin to earthquakes and severe hurricanes, which in some cases result in psychological and financial scars. A large number of the inhabitants of the area were farmers and their crops were completely ruined. Very few fences remained. Many heads of livestock perished as well as poultry.
St Landry Parish had a larger percentage of its population and land area affected by the flood waters. It was reported that 77% of the inhabitants were flood victims and 81% of the parish was inundated. Those refugees who had family and friends in Opelousas or in areas in the elevated prairie areas were fortunate in a sense since they did not have to live in refugee tents or bed down in warehouses. The number of flood victims were many more than had been expected .
By May 20th, there were 5,700 registered refugees in Opelousas. Opelousas at that time had a population of only 6,000. Eunice handled the overflow and 1,107 refugees were in that town. According to the New Orleans Times-Picayune (May 20, 1927) a ``continuous stream of refugees'' made their way into Opelousas from the Pecaniere, Arnaudville, and Leonville areas and by May 25, 1927, there were 13,097 registered refugees, with another 2,000 unregistered ones living with friends and relatives.
Counting refugees in Washington and Sunset the grand total was estimated at almost 21,000. Herbert Hoover who was to later become President inspected the Opelousas camps and found their sanitary condition to be unsatisfactory. Since cholera and other epidemics thrive under such conditions, local doctors inoculated every refugee against these and other diseases.
An Opelousas newspaper reported that Dr. Octave Pavy of Leonville, ``after five days of steady work in behalf of refugees,'' fell asleep at the wheel of his automobile for a moment. When he awakened, he opened the door of the car, but due to fatigue, did not realize that his car was still moving and stepped off the running board and dislocated his collar bone.
There was naturally much anxiety among the refugees as to what they would find of their possessions upon returning home. The book Crevasse mentions that ``residents of the Prairie Laurent and Ross areas of St Landry Parish were among the first to return home, departing Opelousas sometimes before June 4.''
What awaited the returning refugees was many years of long hard work to rehabilitate themselves. Some were able to do so and prosper but others failed. They all had to locate their livestock which in many cases were being fed by the Red Cross. Most bridges and fences had been destroyed by the water. Small buildings and farm implements had been washed away.
But the experiences endured by the refugees were not just statistics but personal stories. The children in 1927 naturally did not realize the seriousness of the work their parents would have to endure such as contaminated water wells and in many cases, abject poverty.
The next issue of the Speyrer Family Association Newsletter will feature personal reminiscences of the Flood of 1927 by Leonville residents who were children at that time when catastrophe struck Leonville.