08 October 2006

New Orleans Bankers vs. Trappers, 1927–28

In early September [1927], [Louisiana Governor Oramel H.] Simpson called the state legislature into special session to pass a constitutional amendment to authorize legally, if retroactively, the Reparations Commission and to govern judicial procedure for cases about the Caernarvon crevasse [officially dynamited to flood St. Bernard and Plaquemines Parishes in order to save Orleans Parish]. In the weeks since the July 25 meeting, crevasse victims had focused what political power they had on getting the legislature to force New Orleans to compensate them fairly. Immediately before the legislature convened, the St. Bernard Voice bitterly complained: "The City of New Orleans promised and pledged itself to stand the loss and to repay each individual his actual damage. But the city is not doing this. The city's reparation committee has been cutting and slashing each claim in half and less than half, even though these claims be absolutely accurate and justified.... Not one claimant is satisfied with his 'settlement.'" It then pleaded, "Here is an opportunity for a New Orleans newspaper, unafraid to lose some prestige with the bankers and financiers, to ascertain the true facts and publish the real story of the manner in which the city is repaying the residents of St. Bernard Parish."

The Voice was a tiny paper, but this time its audience was state legislators. Hugh Wilkinson, a state senator, distributed a copy to every member of the legislature. The next day the New Orleans papers, far from taking up the Voice's appeal, fired back.... New Orleans legislators made sure all these papers were widely distributed as well.... Wilkinson had his own ideas about the wording of the legislation and drafted language that said victims would be "justly, fairly and fully compensated for losses sustained." He planned to offer his language as an amendment in committee....

That evening [Reparations Commission members] Monroe, Hecht, Phelps, and Dufour sat down with Wilkinson and [Senator William] Davey. They insisted that they wanted to avoid a fight, and be fair. Didn't Wilkinson know he could not win? Wilkinson conceded that, though he believed he could win in committee, he did not know what would happen on the floor. If he lost there, he could work something out. Well past midnight they were still talking, and finally an agreement was struck. Wilkinson's client, Molero's Acme Fur Company, would get $1.5 million, as well as money to pay its debts. Individual trappers, however, would have to fend for themselves.

The next day Wilkinson did not even offer his language. Without any debate whatsoever, by voice vote, the committee passed the legislation written by Dufour and Phelps. The State Senate and House, also without debate and by voice vote, did likewise, then immediately adjourned.

A few days later, after it was too late for any harmful political repercussions, Monroe moved against the [muskrat] trappers again. Trappers actually farmed their tracts of land, bred the animals they trapped, raised them, fed them, cared for them just as a farmer cared for chickens. But Monroe and Butler had the state commissioner of conservation claim all trapping animals as the property of the state. Thus trappers could not claim any losses for them....

IN ST. BERNARD and Plaquemines Parishes, total claims, including those that Monroe refused to accept for consideration, reached $35 million. Those he did allow to be filed totaled $12,491,041. He agreed to settlements totaling $3,897,276—but then deducted nearly $1,000,000 from these settlements for feeding and housing the claimants while they were homeless, leaving roughly $2.9 million that the city paid. Of this, $1.5 million went to Molero's company. Five other large claimants, including the Louisiana Southern Railroad, received a total of $600,000. That left roughly $800,000 to divide between 2,809 claimants, who received an average of $284 each to compensate for, in many cases, having their homes and livelihoods destroyed and having their lives disrupted for months. An additional 1,024 claimants received nothing; not a single trapper was offered any compensation for trapping losses.

The two parishes were destitute. In November 1926, trappers had gathered more than a hundred pelts a day; a year and a half after the flood, in November 1928, they were lucky to collect six. In Delacroix, the trapping center, families were literally starving....

No bank, business, or government agency ever made a voluntary payment to the victims to fulfill the self-proclaimed moral obligation, nor was there any organized charity drive to ease the burden of the trappers.

The word of honor of the gentlemen of New Orleans, the gentlemen of the fine clubs, the gentlemen of the Carnival, was "irrelevant." J. Blanc Monroe, who belonged to the finest of those clubs, who once reigned as Comus, had declared it himself. But a reckoning would come.
Huey Long was elected governor in 1928.
LONG REPRESENTED a new kind of flood, an inundation that the city had never faced before. Butler informed Hecht, Dufour, and Monroe that he "had had a talk with Mr. Long, who seemed to have some wrong impressions about certain features both as to the facts and the law" regarding the dynamiting of the levee and the situation in St. Bernard and Plaquemines. Nothing changed regarding those payments, but the equation of power shifted. The two parishes, which shared a congressional seat with New Orleans, supported Long in everything he did and helped him wrest control even of city affairs from the city.
SOURCE: Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America, by John M. Barry (Touchstone, 1998), pp. 355-358, 360, 408

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