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article image‘The Great Flood 1927' threatens Memphis and the Delta

By Carol Forsloff     May 7, 2011 in Environment
Rising floodwaters surround Memphis, one of the great citadels of the Old South, in the crosshairs of disasters, including an earthquake as the South reels from major tornadoes this year. But it’s the 1927 flood memories that make folks anxious now.
Memphis, the blues city, the city of the King of Rock and Roll, Elvis Presley, is one of those treasured places that travel sites extol with their images of wonderful times, lazy days in summer, rambling homes with spacious lawns and Christmas snow and songs of holidays. It is described as a picture postcard town that people wander through, then never want to leave. But it faces nature at her potential worst, a nature that cares little about human preferences or concerns, and has its own designs. Those designs, folks hope, do not include a history repeat of the great Mississippi floods or the rumbles of the earth beneath, as the stresses in those layers get relief and heave through cracks in soil, quaking loudly so that everything about it feels its moves. For Memphis can be impacted by an earthquake from the region known as the Central Mississippi area that experts say could happen anytime.
News from television stations in the area report concerns about flooding that have spread fear among the residents of the several states along the mighty river. The fear is high enough in Memphis, people in some areas have evacuated, although there are experts who say that the flooding may be less than what people say and the flooding can be managed through the city. Still people have evacuated, and others are preparing to do so if the flooding takes a serious path through a town where people wonder what might happen next.
Memphis saw the Mississippi reach 43.8 feet on Tuesday with anticipation of 48 feet on May 11. This is inches below the record set in 1937 when the waters reached 48.7 feet. Emergency officials anticipated that in Shelby County 5,300 homes and businesses may be impacted. Already several hundred people are in shelters, as flooding already has begun 70 miles north-northeast of Memphis, where Memphis Mayor John Holden said people should evacuate.
Experts say the flooding could break records set in 1927 and 1937. It is this that worries residents of the Delta South as well as the Central Mississippi Regions.
The regions called the Central Mississippi and the Delta areas have seen the pain of floods before, and this year those regions have reeled from tornadoes that stretched through the mid-section of the country, causing destruction in great swaths. But years ago the 1927 flood created an upheaval in the Mississippi Valley as Johny Barry related in his book, Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood and How it Changed America. It is referred to as the largest flood in America’s history, with the accounts of rain not much different than this year.
Accounts of the time discuss a winter of 1926-27 when the Mississippi river banks overflowed causing flooding on the major tributaries of the Mississippi, to the west in Oklahoma and Kansas, to the east in Illinois and Kentucky.
The Memphis Commercial Appeal warned on Good Friday, April 15, 1927 : "The roaring Mississippi River, bank and levee full from St. Louis to New Orleans, is believed to be on its mightiest rampage...All along the Mississippi considerable fear is felt over the prospects for the greatest flood in history." And the floods came as predicted, with great breadth and strength, over several hundred thousand square miles. This encompassed parts of the States of Missouri, Illinois, Arkansas, Mississippi, Texas, and Louisiana. The levees, built by the Army Corps of Engineers who said they would hold back the floods, gave way to raging waters.
The Army Corps raised the height of the levees to 38 feet, but the waters broke through, and flooding problems continued in the area in the region, bringing about another terrible flood ten years later. At the time, sandbags and black men’s labors from the cotton fields were used to help hold back the mighty Mississippi River, who was destined to have its way with the land, despite the efforts to contain it. Under the direction of Senator LeRoy Percy what was described as concentration-type camps were set up to keep the African American men from leaving, as folks feared without their labor they would truly lose the battle against the River.
It is the Greenville region where the racial tensions spilled, with blacks being held and not allowed to leave, as history has recorded, and put to work near the levees where their lives were at risk. It is part of the reason why African American songs about the era became woven into the fabric of the music of today.
President Coolidge turned his back on the ordeal of the flooding and the pain of the region, the National Geographic tells us, refusing to provide support despite nationwide appeal. Herbert Hoover became a visible figure on a special committee, making himself a hero of the times, but historians report neither of these Republican politicians gave concrete help to the region or its people.
Louisiana, hard hit by the flood, with its flagship city, New Orleans under water, struggled with the floods that were historic in the pain and misery they caused. The song “Louisiana 1927” was made famous by its writer Randy Newman in the 1970's, that he continues to perform, and Aaron Neville, following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. It is virtually the anthem of Louisiana following Hurricane Katrina flooding, again involving the collapse of the levees in a scenario similar to what happened in 1927, with promises the levees would not fail.
In Vidalia, Louisiana people worry anxiously, as the Army Corps of Engineers has again promised the levees will hold back the anticipated floods from the Mississippi River in Louisiana. The State has put 19 of its parishes on alert. Government has said the flooding could be as bad as 1927, while some say it could be worse, making folks fear the worst, especially knowing the history of broken promises and levee failures in the region.
But as Texas media reports, “the words Corps of Engineers and levees together don't lead to confidence in a lot of people: They remember how the levees in New Orleans were breached by Hurricane Katrina, flooding the city.”
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal has ordered a partial evacuation of the infamous Angola State Penitentiary. Jail inmates are also being used to help protect the city, hoisting 5000 sandbags daily. Most of these inmates are African American, as the high percentage of this ethnic group are in Louisiana jails.
More about Mississippi Delta, 1927 flood, flooding in Memphis, floods in Louisiana, Levees
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