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The Great Flood of 1927 and the Red Cross Response


All eyes are on the Mississippi River as flood waters move down stream from Tennessee towards the Gulf of Mexico. Along the river, American Red Cross workers are providing food, shelter and emotional support for people affected by the flooding.

Eighty-four years ago, the Red Cross was also called into action along the Mississippi during the Great Flood of 1927. In Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, Tennessee, Missouri, Illinois and Kentucky, months of abnormally heavy rain combined with levee breaks led to the flooding of about 26,000 square miles. After all was said and done, more than 162,000 homes were flooded.

There are many similarities between the Great Flood of 1927 and the flooding that is occurring today. Flood waters moved very slowly back then and stayed behind for weeks. Today, the cresting river is also moving at a sluggish pace and experts say the water will linger in flooded areas for weeks.

At that time, the response to the 1927 flooding was the largest Red Cross operation since World War I. Hundreds of communities were affected, thousands of families were left destitute from Cairo, Illinois all the way to New Orleans, a distance of nearly 1,000 miles. Many people refused to leave their homes and had to be rescued.

The Red Cross role was multi-faceted in 1927 – responsibilities included transportation, sheltering, feeding and clothing the displaced Americans, as well as furnishing nursing and medical care. Due to these many responsibilities, the Red Cross was part of the large search and rescue effort, working with the United States Army, Navy, National Guard, and Coast Guard to save people in flooded neighborhoods.

  • Map
  • General summary in figures
  • Camp
  • Camp food line
  • Camps and cared for by state

The rescue fleet consisted of more than 800 large ships and thousands of small water craft. The Navy and National Guard provided land and sea planes which were used to rescue people, and to transport Red Cross workers and supplies. According to the 1927 Red Cross report issued following the flood, people were pulled from levees, rooftops, chimneys, utility poles, railroad cars and treetops – anywhere where they could escape the water. Transportation issues were enormous, first forcing thousands of water rescues, and then the use of horses and mules to navigate through deep mud as the water receded.

As people were forced from their homes, they were taken to one of 154 Red Cross tent camps all over the affected states. Most evacuees stayed in the camps for weeks, but some stayed for months. The Army provided tents, cots, blankets and field kitchens for the camps. More than 325,000 people were “guests” in the camps, the smallest of which housed 300 people; the largest housed 22,000 people. The camps consisted of long rows of Army tents, with boardwalk streets, electric lights and plumbing. Each camp had doctors and nurses on site who began a public health program to vaccinate people against smallpox and typhoid.

Families registered when they reached the camp and were issued a tent, cots and blankets. Meals were available, served by Red Cross workers and women living in the camp. Each camp had a curfew and residents were entertained by actors and musicians famous in 1927. Classes were available in such things as sewing and canning.

Eventually the water went down and people prepared to return home. They received 30 days of rations and packets of seeds for vegetable gardens. The Red Cross helped them return to their old neighborhoods using fleets of boats, caravans of vehicles and the railroad where possible.

The Great Flood of 1927 along the Mississippi River destroyed property, was a menace to public health, and paralyzed the economic and social life of thousands. More than 930,000 lives were affected during the flooding. Millions of acres of farmland were flooded and water remained on the land for weeks. Agricultural losses were estimated at more than $124 million – equal to more than a billion dollars today. Losses to business, utility companies, railroads and government buildings were also in the millions of dollars. Schools were damaged and closed for months.

In addition to caring for the hundreds of thousands of people in the tent camps, the Red Cross made sure there was food to eat for another 300,000 people staying in public buildings and on the second floor of their damaged homes.

There has been flooding along the Mississippi River at various times over the last 84 years, and the Red Cross has responded to help people in need during those times. Today, that support continues. Red Cross workers provide food, shelter and emotional support to people along the river; to people whose homes were ripped form their foundations by tornadoes; to people whose homes were scorched by wildfires.

This year, the Red Cross has launched 23 separate relief operations over more than half of the country since the end of March - from North Dakota to the East Coast and all throughout the South.

Since the end of March, the Red Cross has:

  • Served more than 1.4 million meals and snacks with the help of community partners.
  • Opened more than 190 shelters and provided more than 15,000 overnight stays.
  • Handed out hundreds of thousands of relief items like hygiene kits, mops, brooms, tarps, shovels, work gloves and coolers.
  • Provided more than 32,000 health and mental health consultations.
  • Deployed more than 240 Red Cross emergency response vehicles to areas affected by wildfires, floods and tornadoes.

Please consider making a donation today to help the thousands of people who have been affected by these disasters. You can donate by visiting www.redcross.org, calling 1-800-RED CROSS (1-800-733-2767) or texting the word REDCROSS to 90999 to make a $10 donation. Contributions may also be sent to your local American Red Cross chapter or to the American Red Cross, P.O. Box 37243, Washington, DC 20013.