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The flood began when heavy rains pounded the central basin of the Mississippi in the summer of 1926. By September, the Mississippi's tributaries in Kansas and Iowa were swollen to capacity. On  Christmas Day of 1926, the Cumberland River at Nashville topped levels at 56.2 feet (17 m), a level that remains a record to this day, even exceeding the devastating 2010 floods.
Flooding overtook the levees causing the Mounds Landing to break with more than double the water volume of Niagara Falls. The Mississippi River broke out of its levee system in 145 places and flooded 27,000 square miles (70,000 km2). This water flooded an area 80 km (50 mi) wide and more than 160 km (99 mi) long. The area was inundated up to a depth of 30 feet (10 m). The flood caused over $400 million in damages and killed 246 people in seven states.
The flood affected Arkansas, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Tennessee, Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas. Arkansas was hardest hit, with 14% of its territory covered by floodwaters. By May 1927, the Mississippi River below Memphis, Tennessee, reached a width of 60 miles (97 km).
On April 15, 1927, 15 inches (380 mm) of rain fell in New Orleans in 18 hours. More than 4 feet (1.2 m) of water covered parts of the city, and influential bankers in town met about how to guarantee the safety of the city, with the scale of flooding upriver already known. A few weeks later, about 30 tons of dynamite were set off on the levee at Caernarvon, Louisiana and sent 250,000 ft³/s (7,000 m³/s) of water pouring through. This was intended to prevent New Orleans from experiencing serious damage, but flooded much of St. Bernard Parish and all of Plaquemines Parish's east bank. As it turned out, the destruction of the Caernarvon levee was unnecessary; several major levee breaks well upstream of New Orleans, including one the day after the demolitions, made it impossible for flood waters to seriously threaten the city.
Following the Great Flood of 1927, the Army Corps of Engineers was again charged with taming the Mississippi River. Under the Flood Control Act of 1928, the world's longest system of levees was built. Floodways that diverted excessive flow from the Mississippi River were constructed.
The aftermath of the flood was one factor in the Great Migration of African-Americans to northern cities. During an era in which racism was commonplace, blacks built levees at gunpoint, starved in refugee camps and many were left to fend for themselves during the flood, while whites were rescued. Previously, the move from the rural South to the Northern cities had virtually stopped. The flood waters began to recede in June 1927, but interracial relations continued to be strained. Hostilities had erupted between the races; a black man was shot by a white police officer when he refused to be conscripted to unload a relief boat. As a result of displacements lasting up to six months, tens of thousands of local African-Americans moved to the big cities of the North, particularly Chicago; many thousands more followed in the following decades.
The flood propelled Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, who was in charge of flood relief operations, into the national spotlight and set the stage for his election to the presidency, but indirectly contributed to his defeat four years later. The flood also aided Huey Long's election to the governorship of Louisiana in 1928.:408-409, 477, 487 Hoover was much lauded for his masterful handling of the refugee camps, but later concerns over the treatment of blacks in those camps caused him to make promises to the African-American community which he later broke, losing the black vote in his reelection campaign.:259-290, passim Several reports on the terrible situation in the refugee camps, including one by the Colored Advisory Commission by Robert Russa Moton, were kept out of the media at Hoover's request, with the pledge of further reforms for blacks after the presidential election. When he failed to deliver, Moton and other influential African-Americans helped to shift the allegiance of Black Americans from the Republican party to Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the Democrats.:415
The flood resulted in a great cultural output as well, inspiring a great deal of folklore and folk music. Charlie Patton, Bessie Smith, Barbecue Bob, and many other blues musicians wrote songs about the flood. Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie's "When the Levee Breaks" was reworked by Led Zeppelin, and became one of that group's most famous songs. William Faulkner's short story "Old Man" (in the book If I Forget Thee Jerusalem) was about a prison break from Parchman Penitentiary during the flood. Several decades after the flood, Randy Newman wrote the song "Louisiana 1927," Zachary Richard wrote the song "Big River," and Eric Bibb wrote the song "Flood Water" about it.
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