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.

By , Staff writer

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    In Helena, Ark., an earthen levee is punctuated in industrial areas with a concrete sea wall, seen on Wednesday, May 11, the day before the Mississippi crested at 56 feet, just shy of the 62-foot-high top of the levee and sea wall.
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    A gap in the levee in Helena, Ark., seen May 11, was used for decades to shuttle trucks between the local granary and waiting barges. Steel doors should stand in the gap when the water rises – but when no one could find the doors, emergency crews constructed this makeshift barrier of wooden railroad ties wrapped with plastic sheeting.
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While Mississippi River waters have started to recede in Memphis, the threat is rising with the water level along the lower Delta.

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.”

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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.

Despite the assurances from the corps that floodwaters will not breach the levees, emergency crews throughout the Delta are taking extra precautions as the crest approaches, piling sandbags at levee gates, rail stations, and power stations.

Impoverished Delta residents brace for the flood

Farmers are using tractors to build earthen dams around their fields and grain silos.

In Helena, Ark., where the water is cresting Thursday, a makeshift barrier of wooden railroad ties plugs the levee gap used for decades to shuttle trucks between the local granary and waiting barges.

“We’re operating on 1927 technology in 2011,” says historian Bill Branch with a laugh, “but so far it seems to be working – and I pray that it does.” Mr. Branch curates the Delta Cultural Center, a state-sponsored museum located across the street.

Helena’s downtown, full of century-old buildings, is lined with an earthen levee punctuated in industrial neighborhoods with a concrete sea wall. Despite the fortification, water levels are currently at 56 feet, just shy of the 62-foot-high top of the levee and sea wall.

Branch shut down a current exhibit and moved the artwork and artifacts – instruments and clothing of legendary blues musicians who once honed their craft here – to the building’s second floor.

“Will I look foolish if nothing happens?” Branch wonders. “But what if it does? We are the museum that interprets the [1927] flood.”

Sixteen riverboat casinos – the financial lifeblood of the area – are closed, their parking lots and entrances underwater. The gaming economy delivers $19.7 million a month in local and state taxes and employs 13,000 people, according to the state gaming commission.

Housing the displaced thousands

In each town, community centers, churches, and convention centers are being reconfigured as makeshift shelters.

A Boys and Girls Club in Tunica, Miss., is housing several hundred residents, mostly elderly retirees, whose homes were flooded to the rooftops. While most are resigned to the loss of their home, others insist they will move back. At their age, their property is the only thing they have left, many say.

A disaster declaration signed by President Obama for 14 counties in Mississippi ensures federal funds will help cover housing, home repairs and low-interest loans for uninsured damage.

“I own that property and if I have to put a travel trailer there, I will live there,” says Charles Ford. “I am going to live there even if I crawl.”

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