“On the morning of Good Friday, April 15, 1927, Seguine Allen, the chief engineer of the Mississippi Levee Board in Greenville, Mississippi, woke up to the sound of running water. Rain was lashing the tall windows of his home near the great river with such intensity that the gutters were overflowing and a small waterfall poured past his bedroom. It worried him. He was hosting a party that day, but his concern was not that the weather might keep guests away. Indeed, he knew that the heavy rain, far from decreasing attendance, would bring out all of the community’s men of consequence, all as anxious as he for the latest word on the river.”
Prologue/Rising Tide – The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 & How It Changed America – by John M. Barry
In January of this year, a friend wrote from Clarksdale, Mississippi and said that they had temporarily moved out of their home ‘behind the levee’ because the Mississippi River was over the road. I immediately thought of John Barry’s book, The Rising Tide, and the weather history that led to that great flood. Last September the river was exceptionally high for ‘the end of summer,’ and news of high water in January made me instantly concerned.
It was time to read Rising Tide for a third time and refresh my memory. After finishing the 426-page book, I then switched to William Alexander Percy’s Lanterns on the Levee, his personal memoir that includes recollections of that Great Flood of 1927. His book opens with this often-quoted paragraph:
” My country is the Mississippi Delta, the river country. It lies flat, like a badly drawn half oval, with Memphis at its northern and Vicksburg at its southern tip. Its western boundary is the Mississippi River, which coils and returns on itself in great loops and crescents, though from the map you would think it ran in a straight line north and south. Every few years it rises like a monster from its bed and pushes over its banks to vex and sweeten the land it has made. For our soil, very dark brown, creamy and sweet-smelling, without substrata of rock or shale, was built up slowly, century after century, but the sediment gathered by the river in its solemn task of cleansing the continent and deposited in annual layers of silt on what must once have been the vast depression between itself and the hills. This ancient depression, now filled in and level, is what we call the Delta. Some say it was the floor of the sea itself. Now it seems to still be a floor, being smooth from one end to the other, without rise or dip or hill, unless the mysterious scattered monuments of the mound-builders may be called hills. The land does not drain into the river as most riparian lands do, but tilts back from it towards the hills of the south and east. Across this wide flat alluvial stretch – north and south it measures one hundred and ninety-six miles, east and west at the widest point ffty miles- run slowly and circuitously other rivers and creeks, also high-banked with names pleasant to remember – Rattlesnake Bayou, Quiver River, the Bogue Phalia, the Tallahatchie, the Sunflower – pouring their tawny waters finally into the Yazoo, which in turn loses itself just above Vicksburg in the river. With us when you speak of ‘the river,’ though there are many, you mean always the same one, the great river, the shifting unappeasable god of the country, feared and loved, the Mississippi.” Lanterns on the Levee –‘The Delta’- William Alexander Percy
Now several days before June 2019, my Clarksdale friends have not returned – except by boat – to their home, still untouched by floodwaters, gracias a-Dios. For the river to have been above flood stage for over four months in many areas – that is sobering and spooky news. After all, I am a self-confessed ‘River Rat’ and proud that I grew up a child of nature along the Mississippi River.
Anyone who has lived along the Mississippi river has witnessed its many moods. How well I recall a summer of drought when stranded towboats and their barges anchored in various bends and deeper waters and waited for rains – and for the river to rise. I also remember the “Flood of 1973” when I witnessed the impressive power of the river well above flood stage.
My sister Kate and her husband and I rode in the boat with our father for a ‘short tour.’ From the levee we slowly motored through the flooded woodlands, past submerged ‘summer cabins’ and onto the vast waters of Lake Whittington, an oxbow lake which had once again reunited with the river. As we motored upstream, I sensed the immense power of the water beneath and around us. Perhaps I also sensed the unspoken awareness and primal attention that my loved ones gave the river.
Back on safe but not-solid ground, I witnessed many ‘marvels’ of that flood. Crawfish dotted the sides of the levee and were easy prey for tomboys like my sister Pat and me, who would catch them for an upcoming meal. The timbers on the flooded side of the levee provided ‘once-in-my lifetime’ fishing opportunities; fishing for catfish was especially easy, but bluegills and crappie were more challenging.
I also remember my sister Pat ‘catching’ a water moccasin which got loose in the boat and slithered under one of the metal seats. I was perched high on the levee but well remember her motoring back while standing on the seat! Pat will have to add her own addendum to that story, as I’m sure it’s more clear in her memory than in mine. I think there was something about using gasoline and maybe a fire to get the snake out of its hiding place? (Pat, would you like to write a special post about that Flood of ’73?!!!!!)
The ‘safe’ side of the levee provided new hands-on geology and hydrology lessons. I still marvel that our once-solid sandy loam became much like a sponge, and walking across the yard – quite a distance removed from the levee – provided a bouncy experience! The high water also affected the asphalt country road that paralleled the levee. Slowly the road began to crumble until one could peer through cracks and chunks and sometimes chasms and see small and – to me fascinating – little streams as if a miniature world existed beneath the asphalt! I never witnessed but overheard many people talk about tractors plowing in dry fields and then suddenly bogging down in a “sink hole” far from the levee.
Those flood waters could be tricky, and many days I took my ‘studies’ to the levee to prepare for exams. My preferred transportation was a horse, but I remember a popular song of that time that mentioned a Chevy.
Let’s roll back the years and return to 1927 and William Alexander Percy’s narrative from Lanterns on the Levee:
“My first overflow I recall as a very jolly affair. In town the water was only two or three feet deep and by picket fences and floating board-walks you could climb and slither from the north end of /Walnut Street, where the levee now stands, to Washington Avenue, where Rattlesnake Bayou once ran. Crawfishing was super-excellent, and if you fell in, it was adventure enough for a lifetime.
It must have been during this overflow that Father permitted me to go with him in a skiff from Greenville to the old Percy plantation ten miles to the east, where stands now the town of Leland. Overflow water is depressingly brown, the glare was terrible, and from trees and bushes hung snakes, which I loathed and which loved to fall into boats…”
Near the old river site of Bolivar Landing, my sisters and I grew up hearing tales of the historic levee break that occurred five miles south of our home. Our father told of boating straight from the front porch of his family home in the nearby town of Benoit. Old timers often mentioned ‘The ’27 Flood.’ Those three words, woven into the syntax of Delta drawl, were imprinted into most all descendants of veterans of that flood.
“The ’27 Flood.” “The ’27 Flood.” “The ’27 Flood.” I never groaned or winced when hearing those words; in fact I enjoyed hearing the tales and now wish I had asked more questions!
I remember an older and quite-eloquent black man who once shared with me part of that story. He said that the ‘authorities’ would drive through the towns, see a black man – or youth, point to them and say, “Let’s go.” He was not bitter, just sharing what it was like, and that every hand available was used to try to stop the river from breaking through the levee in the spring of 1927. The levee eventually broke near the community of Scott, Mississippi, located between Percy’s home town of Greenville and Bolivar Landing,
In his book, William Percy stated:
“…All of us who grew up in the Delta have had experience aplenty in guard duty, or ‘walking the levee,’ was we call it. The earliest reason given for this custom was the fear that folks from the other side of the river would sneak over in a dugout and dynamite our levees in order to relieve the pressure on theirs. I doubt if anyone on either side ever attempted such a crime, but, the tradition having been established, armed citizens must guard the levee all night, listen for marauders in the willows, and shoot to kill. A soberer reason for the custom was to discover weak spots in the levee, particularly ‘boils’…
…A boil is a small geyser at the base or on the berm of the levee, on the land side, of course. It is caused by the river’s pressure fingering out some soft stratum in the soil of the levee or by a crawfish hole. If the geyser runs clear, it is being filtered and is comparatively harmless; but if it runs muddy, it is in direct contact with the river and you’d better shoot your pistol, yowl to the next guard, and do something quick. What you do, if you have the gumption of a catfish, is build with sacks of earth a little ‘run-around’- that is a small levee around the geyser to the height of its jet. That stabilizes the pressure, and the boil is safe, but should be flagged and watched. The levee generally breaks from boils enlarging themselves and not from the river running over the top…
… So, during every high-water scare, Delta citizens walk the levee all night with pistols and lantern, nowadays with flashlight. If you won’t volunteer for that duty, you should return to the hills from which obviously you came. If a guard gets lonesome he may gig a frog, whose croaking makes everything lonesomer, or take a little drink. During these times the river is a savage clawing thing, right at the top of the levee and sounding at night like the swish of a sword or the snarl of a beast. It puts ice in your heart when you’re trudging the darkness on slippery berm and hoping not to step on a snake. Each guard walks alone, and the tiny halo of his lantern makes our fearful hearts stouter…”Lanterns on the Levee -Hell and High Water/William Alexander Percy
“I’d done so much guard duty during the years that I gave myself a holiday in April 1927. The American Legion boys had taken over the job and were handling it conscientiously and efficiently. Besides, during the three rainy nights preceding the break, I was in a writer’s tantrum, the remaining proofs of which are Three April Nocturnes. But all good men and true except me were at Scott, fifteen miles above town. There five thousand Negroes, innumerable army and Levee Board engineers, plantation-owners, managers and old time high-water fighters were battling with sand bags and willow mats to save a weak section of the levee. It was cold, and a steady rain fell, freezing the workers and softening the levee. The greatest flood in the history of the Mississippi was roaring south between levees that trembled when you walked on them…” Lanterns on the Levee -Hell and High Water/William Alexander Percy
The River fluctuates according to the whims of the rain gods – and when heavy rainfall ‘up river’ combines with snow melt – those down river know to prepare for a rise. Scanning videos just now in the cyber, I see news of a ‘levee breech’ in Arkansas:
Dardenelle Levee Breech in Arkansas
(Videos and music and movies are warring in the cyber. Please forgive me if I’ve selected a not-so-good video update! I cannot hear it!)
I well remember my father checking the Arkansas City “Three-day forecast” in the daily newspaper, then checking the river gauge predictions for Helena, Memphis and above. Just like the ’27 flood was imprinted on his memory, I later found myself sharing stories of ‘The ’73 Flood.’
A new and perhaps even-more powerful flood continues to torment those who live along the river and its connecting tributaries. From the upper fingertips of the river’s beginnings to the swollen delta at the Gulf of Mexico, the river and floodwaters have disrupted many lives and threatens even more. Countless areas are at high risk, and even though our family mostly heard about the ’27 break at Scott Mississippi, there were many more breaks that I never knew about until I read The Rising Tide.
The Yazoo River ‘basin’ where I also once lived, has been greatly affected by this year’s heavy rainfall and flooding. Backwaters continue to flood communities where friends, past students and their families still live. John Barry’s book shows images from the ’27 flood at Holly Bluff, the petite little town where my mother first taught after graduating from college.
Holly Bluff was in last week’s international news, but this year’s flood waters are not presently from the Mississippi River, but because they are trapped in that ‘bowl’ on the ‘wrong side’ of the levee. I recall the back roads winding through cotton fields and along cypress-studded creeks and bayous in a pastoral area which now appears to be a vast sea of chocolate-colored floodwaters.
This Associated Press video shows the flooded version of the Holly Bluff area.
South of Natchez, Mississippi and Vidalia, Louisiana and slightly above Baton Rouge, Louisiana, The Old River Control Structure, also known as the Morganza Spillway, was scheduled to be opened on Sunday, but the opening has been delayed until June 6.
Like a bronco behind a corral gate, the Mississippi River has tried during many floods to get past these man-made structures and scrawl a new route to the Gulf through ancient pathways. If the waters keep rising, how much more before they creep over levees or break through any one of countless weak and weary points? When the gates open, more farmlands and homes will be flooded; wildlife will have no warning.
Would you want to be in charge – to be one of the decision makers? Here’s a video I watched off line of a presentation by Dr. Y. Jun Xu, “world-renowned hydrologist of Louisiana State University, explains how South Louisiana is on the verge of one of the worlds most detrimental natural disasters in history.”
There are no perfect options; those who are below the rerouting of these waters are rightfully concerned – no one will know until the river writes its own chapter – best to divert and dole the flood waters out – if possible – than risk a break. Easy for me to say from my vantage point of the equator; if I were down hill/down river from a spillway about to be opened, I’d be trembling with alarm and preparing to evacuate. I would probably be openly angry. There are many variables and many worries.
If a new channel route should form, some sources predict that the future of Baton Rouge, New Orleans and most communities between will have little future. Drinking water would be an almost-instant dilemma; the salty Gulf waters will creep forward; sand/silt from the river will settle instead of flowing along on swift currents. Barge and shipping lanes will be choked. Supplies couldn’t be sent upriver, and grains couldn’t be exported.
Please keep an eye on what happens when the spillway is opened; I have witnessed the Great River’s power and will continue to follow this 2019 Flood with extreme concern.
Thanks to all of you who have sent updates, so very appreciated. Does anyone have recent photos of floodwaters for a follow-up post?
“… So the story ends as it began, with man determined to assert his will over the river.” final sentence from Rising Tide by John M. Barry