BILL MINOR: History repeats itself in turf wars about oil damage strategy

JACKSON – History is repeating itself: two environmental disasters 83 years apart – the Great Mississippi River flood of 1927 and the great oil well spill of 2010 that spews untold millions of gallons of crude oil into the Gulf. And once again, over-eager Louisiana politicians against scientists advice push containment schemes that won’t work and will damage ecology of the region.
Back in 1927, an incredibly powerful group of New Orleans bankers and businessmen brow-beat the Louisiana governor and even federal authorities into dynamiting a crevasse in the Mississippi River levee just below New Orleans, flooding St. Bernard and Plaquemine parishes, on the pretense that it would relieve New Orleans from being flooded.
After the ugly deed was done, according to John M. Barry’s great book “Rising Tide: Story of the 1927 Mississippi Flood,” as many insiders already knew, New Orleans was never in danger of being flooded. Worse yet, restitution promises made by the New Orleans bankers to trappers and others whose livelihood has been destroyed in the two down-river parishes were never kept.
Now, in the massive BP oil spill of 2010, Louisiana Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal grabs daily TV and press coverage for some new large-scale engineering scheme to keep the oil from invading the state’s delicate coastal wetlands that serve as breeding grounds for hundreds of wildlife and seafood.
Consistently, scientists and the Army Corps of Engineers have to tangle with Jindal before he goes too far with his project. The latest Jindal scheme was to build two-mile long stone jetties out from Barataria Bay. Before the Corps of Engineers could stop Jindal, he had ordered tons of huge stone blocks shipped by barges.
Now the blocks sit disconsolately on barges in the Mississippi River. The Corps had acted to stop construction of the jetties because of concerns from scientific and environmental authorities that the dikes, which could become permanent, would actually do more damage to natural coastal resources than hold off oil by blocking tides that need to move in and out of the passes. Additionally, the concern was that it would increase the velocity of water and oil moving into the wetlands, cutting away natural barrier islands.
Jindal, once known as the “boy wonder” of Louisiana government and politics, was not silenced and kept up his attack on the federal governments’ “roadblocks” and threatened to “move forward.” Just a couple of weeks earlier he had battled with the Corps and the Environmental Protection Agency over his plan to pump up miles of sand “berms” to protect the wetlands from oil encroachment. Scientists had raised the same concerns as with the stone dikes, plus charging that the berms would be washed away by a big storm. Still, because of Jindal’s persistence some trial berms were okayed by the Corps.
The Jindal episode in the great oil spill is a direct reminder of how the powerful group of New Orleans bankers and businessmen, led by banker James Pierce Butler in the 1927 Mississippi River Flood bulldozed state and federal government authorities to implement their crazy plan to dynamite the Mississippi River levee just below the city on the false pretext it was necessary to relieve the city’s being flooded.
On the day set for the dynamiting there was a circus-like scene on the levee and the river as newsmen and cameramen from around the country hovered in boats and small airplanes for the event. Only a small trickle of river water flowed through the crevasse after the first blast. Eventually, it would take 17 blasts before a big gush of water streamed into the St. Bernard Parish lowlands.
The two parishes didn’t soon forget what the New Orleans business brain trust had done to them. Soon, a political strongman named Leander Perez (who as a young man had taken part in the one-sided negotiations with the New Orleans bankers) would emerge with ties to the Huey Long machine to make life miserable in state legislative circles for the Orleanians. Perez, who never held any other office than district attorney of the two parishes, became wealthy by scooping up wetlands where oil wells began to dot the landscape.
Perez became a vocal leader in the 1948 Dixiecrat rebellion against the election of President Harry Truman. Significantly, one of their beefs with Truman was over his refusal to give coastal states all royalties from off-shore oil and gas wells.

Bill Minor has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him at P.O. Box 1243, Jackson, MS 39215-1243, or e-mail at edinman@earthlink.net.

Bill Minor