After the waters quieted and the concrete had been penetrated by exploratory diamond drills, Old River Control at once became, and has since remained, the civil-works project of highest national priority for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Through the surface of Louisiana 15, the road that traverses the structure, more holes were drilled, with diameters the size of dinner plates, and grout was inserted in the cavities below, like fillings in a row of molars. The grout was cement and bentonite. The drilling and filling went on for months. There was no alternative to leaving gates open and giving up control. Stress on the structure was lowest with the gates open. Turbulence in the channel was commensurately higher. The greater turbulence allowed the water on the Atchafalaya side to dig deeper and increase its advantage over the Mississippi side. As the Corps has reported, “The percentage of Mississippi River flow being diverted through the structure in the absence of control was steadily increasing.” That could not be helped.
To refine the engineering of the auxiliary structure, several additional models, with movable beds, were built on a distorted scale. Making the vertical scale larger than the horizontal was believed to eliminate surface-tension problems in simulating the turbulence of a real river. The channel beds were covered with crushed coal—which has half the specific gravity of sand—or with walnut shells, which were thought to be better replicas of channel-protecting rock but had an unfortunate tendency to decay, releasing gas bubbles. In one model, the stilling basin below the new structure was filled with driveway-size limestone gravel, each piece meant to represent a derrick stone six feet thick. After enough water had churned through these models to satisfy the designers, ground was broken at Old River, about a third of a mile from the crippled sill, for the Old River Control Auxiliary Structure, the most advanced weapon ever developed to prevent the capture of a river—a handsome gift to the American Ruhr, worth three hundred million dollars. In Vicksburg, Robert Fletcher—a sturdily built, footballish sort of engineer, who had explained to me about the nutshells, the coal, and the gravel—said of the new structure, “I hope it works.”
The ’27 high water tore the valley apart. On both sides of the river, levees crevassed from Cairo to the Gulf, and in the same thousand miles the flood destroyed every bridge. It killed hundreds of people, thousands of animals. Overbank, it covered twenty-six thousand square miles. It stayed on the land as much as three months. New Orleans was saved by blowing up a levee downstream. Yet the total volume of the 1927 high water was nowhere near a record. It was not a hundred-year flood. It was a form of explosion, achieved by the confining levees.
The national importance of the commission is perhaps illuminated by the fact that one of its first civilian members was Benjamin Harrison. Another was James B. Eads, probably the most brilliant engineer who has ever addressed his attention to the Mississippi River. As a young man, he had walked around on its bottom under a device of his own invention that he called a submarine. As a naval architect in the Civil War, he had designed the first American ironclads. Later, at St. Louis, he had built the first permanent bridge across the main stem of the river south of the Missouri. More recently, in defiance of the cumulative wisdom of nearly everyone in his profession, he had solved a primal question in anadromous navigation: how to get into the river. The mouth was defended by a mud-lump blockade—impenetrable masses of sediment dumped by the river as it reached the still waters of the Gulf. Dredging was hopeless. What would make a channel deep enough for ships? The government wouldn’t finance him, so Eads bet his own considerable fortune on an elegant idea: he built parallel jetties in the river’s mouth. They pinched the currents. The accelerated water dug out and maintained a navigable channel.
For the Corps of Engineers, not to mention the people of the southern parishes, the triumph of 1937 brought fresh courage, renewed confidence—a sense once again that the river could be controlled. Major General Harley B. Ferguson, the division commander, became a regional military hero. It was he who had advocated the project’s many cutoffs, all made in the decade since 1927, which shortened the river by more than a hundred miles, reducing the amount of friction working against the water. The more distance, the more friction. Friction slows the river and raises its level. The mainline levees were rebuilt, extended, reinforced—and their height was almost doubled, reaching thirty feet. There was now a Great Wall of China running up each side of the river, with the difference that while the levees were each about as long as the Great Wall they were in many places higher and in cross-section ten times as large. Work continued on the floodways. There was one in Missouri that let water out of the river and put it back into the river a few miles downstream. But the principal conduit of release—without which Bonnet Carre would be about as useful as a bailing can—was the route of the Atchafalaya. Since the lower part of it was the largest river swamp in North America, it was, by nature, ready for the storage of water. The Corps built guide levees about seventeen miles apart to shape the discharge toward Atchafalaya Bay, incidentally establishing a framework for the swamp. In the northern Atchafalaya, near Old River, they built a three-chambered system of floodways involving so many intersecting levees that the country soon resembled a cranberry farm developed on an epic scale. The West Atchafalaya Floodway had so many people in it, and so many soybeans, that its levees were to be breached only by explosives in extreme emergency—maybe once in a hundred years. The Morganza Floodway, completed in the nineteen-fifties, contained farmlands but no permanent buildings. A couple of towns and the odd refinery were surrounded by levees in the form of rings. But the plane geometry of the floodways was primarily intended to take the water from the Mississippi and get it to the swamp.
While the control structure at Old River was shaking, more than a third of the Mississippi was going down the Atchafalaya. If the structure had toppled, the flow would have risen to seventy per cent. It was enough to scare not only a Louisiana State University professor but the division commander himself. At the time, this was Major General Charles Noble. He walked the bridge, looked down into the exploding water, and later wrote these words: “The south training wall on the Mississippi River side of the structure failed very early in the flood, causing violent eddy patterns and extreme turbulence. The toppled training wall monoliths worsened the situation. The integrity of the structure at this point was greatly in doubt. It was frightening to stand above the gate bays and experience the punishing vibrations caused by the violently turbulent, massive flood waters.”
Although Javert's pursuit of Valjean is the dramatic thread that ties the story together, the political theme is principally linked by men accused of being class traitors, and this is well brought out. The working-class Javert has been corrupted by becoming the unquestioning servant of the ruling class; the student Marius (Eddie Redmayne in fine voice) has found personal salvation by deserting his own class to join the revolution. In Les Misérables the idealists, not the devil, have the best tunes, among them Red and Black and the stirring Do You Hear the People Sing?.
Just why the Army should be involved at all with levee systems, navigation locks, rock jetties, concrete revetments, and the austere realities of deltaic geomorphology is a question that attracts no obvious answer. The Corps is here because it is here. Its presence is an expression not of contemporary military strategy but of pure evolutionary tradition, its depth of origin about a century and three-quarters. The Corps is here specifically to safeguard the nation against any repetition of the War of 1812. When that unusual year was in its thirty-sixth month, the British Army landed on the Gulf Coast and marched against New Orleans. The war had been promoted, not to say provoked, by territorially aggressive American Midwesterners who were known around the country as hawks. It had so far produced some invigorating American moments (“We have met the enemy and they are ours”), including significant naval victories by ships like the Hornet and the Wasp. By and large, though, the triumphs had been British. The British had repelled numerous assaults on Canada. They had established a base in Maine. In Washington, they had burned the Capitol and the White House, and with their rutilant rockets and airburst ballistics they tried to destroy Baltimore. New Orleans was not unaware of these events, and very much dreaded invasion. When it came, militarily untrained American backwoods sharpshooters, standing behind things like cotton bales, picked off two thousand soldiers of the King while losing seventy-one of their own. Nonetheless, the city’s fear of invasion long outlasted the war.