Ever since I strapped on my first Ikegami 730A I’ve been my own worst critic (except for that one time in 2000 when Darrel Barton took a peek at my reel — I still wake in a cold sweat over that one). When a reporter of fellow photog slaps me on the back or hoists a brew over the story I help tell, I always see what I could have done better: a shot I missed, an interview I would love to have, or that nat sound stab that wasn’t quite clean enough.
Back then, as today, if a news story falls short of it’s potential I feel like I failed not only the story, but the people in it. That’s why the story about a forgotten flood has gotten under my skin.
Back in 1912, folks in northern Pointe Coupee Parish were sitting down to dinner when the spring thaw, heavy rains in the central plains, and a crack in the Mississippi River’s levee erased the small town of Torras from the map and split the state of Louisiana in two.
Torras was a bustling town of more than 300 people, most of them farmers and craftsmen. Four different railroads criss-crossed the hamlet near the confluence of the Red, Atchafalaya and Mississippi rivers. All four were washed away by the Forgotten Flood. As floodwaters poured across farmland and into houses, it sent the hardworking folk running for cover.
It took three days for the floods to reach the Mounger General Store in Lettsworth. From there, folks staged rescue operations, using boats to ferry people from flooded homes to the one remaining railroad in the parish. That track took some families to Baton Rouge and scattered the rest across the country.
By day seven, the water reached the city of New Roads nearly 30 miles from Torras. Water circled the city, filled False River, and continued it’s march through West Baton Rouge, Iberville, Lafourche, and Terrebonne parishes on its way to the Gulf of Mexico.
Local newspapers name 40 fatalities from Pointe Coupee alone. A New York Times article from after the flood says returning families found scores of dead.
As tragic as that is, what’s even more devastating is legacy of the Forgotten Flood. The town of Torras never returned. The only building from that era still standing is the Mounger General store. The Moungers returned and operated the store late into the 1900s, but unlike the Moungers, many of the people from Pointe Coupee gave up. So many, that today, 100 years later, the population of the parish is still 3000 less than it was when they sat down to dinner on May 1, 1912.
The real tragedy in all this is that most people in Louisiana have never heard about this flood. They can site stats on the 1927 flood that took out New Orleans, but ask them about a flood that cut the state in half, re-drew the map of south-central Louisiana, and changed the culture of Pointe Coupee parish forever, and all you get is a blank stare.
Yesterday, I got a chance to tell that story. I botched it. I started with an 8-minute interview shot last week, 13 pictures, and six hours to work. Four-and-a-half of those hours were spent driving to the site of Torras and to Mounger’s General store for a little video, and a quick interview to tie the story together.
The resulting television won’t curve my spine, give me rickets, or bring shame upon my station, but I know the whole story. I know what it could have been. Even a day later, my execution leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I’ll just hang it on the wall with the others that got away and vow to do the next one a little better.