As the head of Canal Bank, the largest bank in the South, and a member of the New Orleans Board of Liquidation of the City, James Pierce Butler was one of the most powerful men in New Orleans during the 1920s. That power would be unleashed during the great Mississippi River flood of 1927.
Rise to Prominence
Raised on his family's plantation in Natchez, Mississippi, Butler went to Tulane University and its law school before pursuing a banking career. His rise to the presidency of Canal Bank ensured his prominence in New Orleans society, including a stint as president of the exclusive Boston Club. His banking position gained him entry onto the Board of Liquidation of the City Debt, an organization with extraordinary control of the city's finances. And money was at the forefront when a deluge fell in April 1927.
A Fateful Decision
On Good Friday, April 15, 1927, 15 inches of rain poured on New Orleans within 18 hours, causing water to rise four feet in parts of the city. A power outage had knocked out electricity to the Wood pumps, which would normally have drained the water. As the storm continued, members of the city's banking community met with Marcel Garsaud, the manager of the Dock Board. He noted that he could guarantee the safety of New Orleans by dynamiting a levee elsewhere -- if the men agreed. While that action would endanger the rural areas around the levee, the bankers had heard from financial institutions concerned about the city's safety and their investments in it. "Only dynamite will restore confidence," one of them said. Butler cemented the decision when he concluded, "I believe the appropriate step at this point is to involve the authorities."
Committee Takes Charge
New Orleans Mayor Arthur O'Keefe agreed to abide by the bankers' wishes. He appointed Butler chairman of the Citizens Flood Relief Committee, which was charged with all matters involving the flood. Meanwhile, residents of New Orleans were fleeing in droves and city businesses shuttered their doors, even though the Corps of Engineers contended that floodwaters wouldn't reach the city. In addition, Isaac Cline, the head of the U.S. Weather Bureau Office at New Orleans, told a newspaper that the possibility of danger to the city was remote. Yet the plan to dynamite proceeded with Butler's backing.
The power brokers of New Orleans targeted a levee in the Poydras area, 13 miles below Canal Street, but nearby residents fought them. At a meeting on April 26, one man said, "Where do they get the authority to drown us out, to deprive us of our homes and living?" Attendees sent a wire to Butler protesting the action and the "utterly insufficient provision for compensation in full for personal and property damages." In response, Butler and other bankers agreed to provide a fund of $2 million in loans prior to the settlement of any claims. Area residents reluctantly accepted.
The impending destruction of the levee forced mass evacuations of nearby residents, with the city designating a huge warehouse as a refugee center for those with nowhere else to go. Those residents were not allowed to witness the destruction of the levees: "Only the privileged with their official permits could pass the National Guard," noted one New Orleans writer. On April 29, three blasts rang out, but they would not do the job. It took 10 days and 39 tons of dynamite, which eventually released 250,000 cubit feet of water per second. A subsequent breach of a levee upriver, which eased pressure on New Orleans' levees, showed that the dynamiting wasn't needed to protect the city.
After losing their homes, residents affected by the levee destruction were also denied the promised full compensation. Butler and J. Blanc Monroe, a fellow member of the Board of Liquidation of the City Debt, took control of the reparations process. While claims reached $35 million, Monroe, a lawyer and board member of the Whitney Bank, agreed to pay $3.9 million -- minus $1 million for food and housing costs -- to the displaced residents. After several corporate claimants were paid, 2,809 individuals received an average of $284 each. More than 1,000 other claimants received nothing. For his work, Monroe received a $25,000 bonus.
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