“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. Continue reading