Mississippi flooding: In impoverished Delta, echoes of 1927 disaster
Mississippi flooding concerns are now shifting to the Delta region south of Memphis, Tenn. Residents are using tractors and building makeshift levees to avoid a repeat of the 1927 floods.
For decades, Delta communities have relied on – and been punished by – the river. Last week, every riverfront Delta town surpassed its established flood stage, and the water is still rising.
On Wednesday, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour urged people in low-lying areas to evacuate. “More than anything else: Save your life, and don't put at risk others who might have to come in and save your lives.”
Mississippi’s emergency management agency reports that 600 homes are already flooded, and the floodwaters will displace over 5,000 people before they recede next month.
‘You can’t control the river’
The unpredictable nature of the Mississippi River is its most predictable trait, says John Barry, author of “Rising Tide,” the definitive history of the 1927 flood.
“The lesson learned [from 1927] is: You can’t control the river. All you can do is contain it. Therefore you have floodways, levees, spillways, reservoirs, pretty much everything,” Mr. Barry says. But even with such formidable protections in place, “It’s inevitable – we’re going to get great floods.”
Waters swamping the Delta, a 200-mile stretch between Memphis, Tenn., and Vicksburg, Miss., will devastate an already-struggling area. Nine of the 11 counties along the river have poverty rates about double the national average of 13.5 percent, according to the US Census Bureau.
A tour of the communities along the Delta, ranging from Alligator, Miss., (population 195) to Greenville (population 35,000), reveals sandbags and closed levee gates, but the mood is more of quiet tension than visible panic.
Walls of local restaurants and inns are lined with historic photographs from the 1927 flood, the most destructive of its kind in US history. Locals refer to it in almost every conversation, but they say that precautions taken in the flood’s wake by the Army Corps of Engineers reassured them that such a disaster could never happen again.
“We never thought it would get this high,” says Milford Hough, standing with his wife atop the Greenville levee. Mr. Hough’s home in Black Bayou is located near the site of the first levee breach in 1927. He says he trusted the Army Corps's predictions about river levels so much that he didn’t bother purchasing flood insurance for his home, built on the river side of the levee. Today, his home has five feet of water inside.