With unit slogans like, “To build, to conquer,” and “Fight, build and destroy,” the Army Corps of Engineers — first in, last out — has remade shores and river walls and floodplains across the nation for over two centuries. In his new monograph, Hope for the Dammed: The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Greening of the Mississippi, historian Todd Shallat walks through the Corps’ century and a half of industry on the Gulf Coast. In the excerpt below, Shallat lays out the riverine landscape and its residents, caught between the command and control of the Corps and the  more recent preservationist tendencies of environmental regulation. — Eds.

“See that?” Fisherman Frank “Big Kenny” Campo guns his launch toward the ruin of his father’s marina in the shallows east of New Orleans. “Over there, that was Shell Beach. Dry land. That light over there was the shore.”

Dark and barrel-chested, an Isleño whose peasant foreparents emigrated from the Canary Islands to colonize Louisiana and fight the British for Spain, Kenny, age 50, runs a shanty called Blackie’s Marina from a slip off a freight canal. No fax or internet listing. No shells. No beach. Wakes slap a small lagoon dank with the rot of swamp grass. Vines and climbing ivy strangle each other for light.

“It’s been, what, 35 years since they built the canal?  We’ve sunk 30 inches.”

Kenny kills the outboard and glides. A gray man on a timber dock waves a hose at a Styrofoam ice chest. “I’ll tell you what’s wrong with the marsh,” says Blackie Campo.

Father and partner to Kenny and grandfather to a hulk of a youth the family calls Little Kenny, Blackie, age 80, remembers green flats of scrub vegetation. Shell roads with lumbering oxen. Palm roofs on tar-paper huts. He remembers Bayou Terre aux Bouefs (“land of the oxen”) in the Parish of St. Bernard where Isleños for 200 years had guarded their isolation. And Blackie darkly recalls the last week of April in 1927 when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, with presidential approval and 39 tons of explosives, blasted the record flood into St. Bernard. It was “the public execution of the parish,” said a marsh politician, and it haunts the grasslands still. “Make a list of everything the corps does around here,” Blackie advises. “Everything on the list… THAT’S what’s wrong with the marsh.”

Excerpted from: Todd Shallat, Hope for the Dammed: The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Greening of the Mississippi, vol. 33, Essays in Public Works History (Kansas City: American Public Works Association, 2014). Download the full monograph.

Once the parish, rich with muskrats, was a fur empire second to none. Blackie remembers when Louisiana exported more fur than all of Canada or Russia. When a silk-lined coat of Genuine Natural Muskrat was, said Sears and Roebuck in 1927, “a remarkable value” at $199. Living wet and eating from tins, a trapper could net a profit — maybe $4,000 a year. He could also net redfish and trout. “We’d trap in the winter, fish in the summer,” says Kenny with a glance Blackie. “Shell Beach had 50 families at one time. We had a train to the French Market [in New Orleans]. The tracks went into the water. Right to the [fishing] schooners. How big were those schooners, daddy? Fifty feet? We’d fish Lake Borgne, mostly. Fish sold by the string, by ‘the hand’ we used to call it. Croaker, flounder, sheepshead, mackerel… Best fish in the world. We never kept anything under two feet.”

That was before Mister Go. Completed in 1963 at a cost of $95 million, the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (called MRGO or “Mister Go”) sliced 40 miles from the treacherous trip through the delta’s meandering passes. Fog and mud bars had plagued navigation through the mouth of the river since 1719 when the French first sounded a channel for warships. In 1838 the U.S. Corps of Engineers scraped at the mud with an endless-chain bucket dredge. The chain broke. Spare parts went down in a shipwreck. After two years of bad luck and mechanical frustration, the captain in charge was convinced that a ship canal was the surest solution, that “any sum, however large, would not be more than commensurate with its [the canal’s] importance.” A century later the project was “vital,” said Senator Russell B. Long, “to the maintenance of the position we hold in the free world today.” MRGO, a boon to the Port of New Orleans, was Louisiana’s response to grain-trade competition from the new St. Lawrence Seaway. It was also a saline cut through the core of Iberian culture in the Parish of St. Bernard.

Already that parish below New Orleans was pooling with open water. Barely two feet above sea level in 1960, the parish, heavy with mud, had been dropping a tenth of an inch each year. Now brine pushed inland by storms ate chunks from the floating reed flats. Shell Beach gave way to Lake Borgne.

By 1960 five or six houses on stilts had relocated to a paper-thing puzzle of swamp grass. Storms sped across shallow water faster than ever before. “Betsy moved quick,” said Blackie. Too quick said those who suspected the engineers were somehow involved. It had been 38 years since the corps had blasted the levee. Had the corps been at it again? “They give us too much credit,” says Harley Winer, a corps hydrologist. “Do they think we were out there with dynamite in 100 mph winds? It’s ridiculous.”

Isleño trappers

U.S. Farm Security Administration
Spanish-speaking Isleño muskrat trappers near Delacroix Island, Louisiana, 1941.

But rumors persist. “Yes sir, they had a plan [to blow the parish levees]. That’s what my cousin told me two days before the flood.” When the storm hit two days later, Blackie and Kenny were rushing boats to the cover of swamp. “We were towing skiffs into the forest,” Blackie explains. “I pulled hard against the current. The [MRGO] channel was high [and] the stronger it blew, the higher it got. That’s how the parish flooded.”

Mister Go, said the Times Picayune, had become a “hurricane superhighway.” That’s the conventional wisdom in New Orleans, the gospel truth in St. Bernard. And yet it’s absurd. “Let’s just call it a popular misconception,” says Robert J. Guizerix, chief of structural engineering at the New Orleans Corps. An earnest man in a spotless office, he, too, was a witness to Betsy, and this New Orleans native has spent a career making sure levees don’t fail again. No 500-foot canal could divert a tidal surge, says Guizerix. Nothing as big as Betsy could be captured by anything humanmade. “A hurricane can be 200 miles across. A surge can be 100, maybe 150 miles wide. It’s not going to even notice a tiny cut. It wouldn’t even know it was there.”

Blackie smiles. Rocking back on a porch tacked to a house that was built from the wreckage of other houses, a house that the engineers “just picked up and moved” to make room for Mister Go, Blackie has already heard too many government experts who dismiss what a fisherman knows. He remembers the Corps telling Congress that Mister Go could not have flooded the parish because a 1915 hurricane with the same approach had done similar harm. And he remembers the post-Betsy testimony of a Brit named Ian Collins. “He was some kind of scientist from England. A red-haired limey! This guy’s going to tell me which way the water was flowing? I was there.” When the experts denied a link between the channel and hurricane flooding, St. Bernard and six other plaintiffs sued for flood compensation. “The inadequacy of the [levee] system was fully known, fully appreciated, and the consequences were understood,” said a parish spokesman. After a decade of charges and counter-charges, a 5th district judge tossed the matter from court.

Defeated by government science, the campaign against Mister Go shifted to a war of attrition on murkier legal ground. Congress helped. With President Nixon’s signature on January 1, 1970, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) became the first and most far-reaching legislative attempt to “prevent or eliminate damage to the environment and biosphere.” A Magna Carta for environmental protection, NEPA made federal builders confront the dark side of engineering — the dislocation, the danger to wild species, the risk of planning gone wrong. The law cut to the bone of Corps economics. By questioning the way the agency had been allowed to define the “benefits” of river improvement, it invited a frank disclosure of what the critics called “social cost.”

NEPA mandated public hearings — a chance for officials in St. Bernard to protest and stall construction at every critical stage. In 1972, the target became the government’s plan to cargo traffic to a gleaming new mechanized port. Centroport U.S.A., as the project came to be called, would be the nation’s biggest ship lock, a Corps-built Port of New Orleans Mister Go extension that would bypass the congested and antiquated urban harbor. Boosters coveted the open space at a small landing called Violet in the Parish of St. Bernard. Pete Savoye of the parish sportsman’s league, now a retired carpenter from Chalmette, remembers the local talk: “Hey, we’re going to have waterfront property! We’re going to have warehouses and industry!” Supertanker and container ships would enrich the parish as they crossed back and forth from river to seaway. Rising like an industrial phoenix about 10 miles southeast of Canal Street, the rebuilt landing at Violet would be the Rotterdam of the South.

So said the Corps, the New Orleans dock board and Louisiana’s powerful Tidewater Development Association. Land developers even mailed out a flyer that promised an annual payroll of $80 million from 10,000 industrial jobs. Quickly negotiations unraveled, however. Who would make important decisions about issues affecting the parish? What about marsh degradation? What about the hurricane threat? Savoye recalls: “You’d have to have been an idiot to believe some of the things they were saying. You’d have to have been a fool. The politicians said these canals would bring us all kinds of goodies. The parish never got a penny. What we got was erosion and floods.”

Army Corps of Engineer survey map

Army Corps of Engineers
Army Corps of Engineers hydrologic survey map for St. Bernard Parish, east of New Orleans. (2004 survey.)

Corps ecologist Sue Hawes — a tough-minded mother of three who had studied at Brown University and once, in Texas, diffused a cafeteria riot — was prepared for ideological conflict but unprepared for the rancor of Centroport NEPA hearings. On November 29, 1972, for example, a seething crowd of about 700 ambushed one the nation’s most powerful politicians. Congressman F. Edward Hebert, a long-time Mister Go supporter, said the economy would simply “perish” if the port did not expand. Appealing to patriotism, he asked his constituents to “accept and embrace the common good.” Appealing to wallets, he promised to “turn the [the Mister Go spur canal] project over to St. Bernard Parish for development after its completion. This means — hear me well — this means that the New Orleans Dock Board… will have nothing to do with any control over any of the land.” But the parish insurgents had heard it all too often. Chanting and jeering and parading through the room with placards, the protested drove Hebert off the auditorium stage. Years later Hebert claimed he had never been so rudely treated. Quite a statement. Once the Isleños of St. Bernard had defended the bayous with shotguns. Politics had seldom been calm.

Back on River Road in the old army barracks converted to a government compound, the Corps responded with outrage. “We’ll go down there and build the project with tanks and guns if we have to!” said Col. Richard L. Hunt. Politically, however, the bullish era of army-directed construction was already dead. Soon the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway was halted by court injunction; so was the Cross Florida Barge Canal, New Melonis Dam on the Stanislaus, Oakley Dam on the Sangamon and the Baldwin Channel proposal to float supertankers into California’s Central Valley. In Missouri, after a series of NEPA hearings led to embarrassing headlines, the Corps stepped back from its plan for high levees north of St. Louis. In Texas the voters rejected a plan to make Dallas-Ft. Worth a seaport. In Arkansas a federal judge blocked the draining and channelization of Cache River swampland. In Idaho the state wildlife agency borrowed the language of NEPA to protest fish kills below Dworshak, the Corps’ tallest dam.

As engineers grappled with NEPA, Mister Go consumed the marsh. Rapidly eroding, the original 650-foot-wide channel had destroyed 3,000 acres of marsh by the mid-70s. Hurting fish and shellfish, it leaked pollution and salt. The U.S. Wildlife Service feared that a freightway off to Violet would destroy another 5,000 acres “severely impair” the parish’s effort to slow its slide to the Gulf. In April 1976, the Chief of Engineers in Washington signed off on the Violet project. The governor of Georgia weighed in on the side of the parish. If elected to the presidency, said Jimmy Carter, he would cleave the pork alliance between and the Port of New Orleans. No extension to Mister Go would bisect the pasture at Violet. On April 18, 1977, a press release from the Carter White House killed the Centroport concept, calling blandly for “further study.”

It had been 21 years since Congress had first approved a new ship lock for New Orleans. Another 20 would pass before a modern lock was again under NEPA review.

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The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.