May 8, 2011 11:45 PM by Chris Welty
GREENVILLE, Miss. (AP) - As the crest in the Mississippi River
rolls toward the heart of the Delta, the great flood of 1927 is on
a lot of minds.
On April 21 of that year, an engorged Mississippi River broke
through a levee a few miles north of Greenville, sending a wall of
water down Main Street, forever changing this area's landscape.
Homes were crushed, sharecroppers' farms were carried away,
thousands were trapped on rooftops for days and hundreds died.
Residents in Greenville believe they are safe this time, but 75
miles south in Vicksburg, people wonder whether history will repeat
itself. Near the site where the Yazoo River empties into the
Mississippi, forming a wishbone-like shape, predictions are the
water will overtop the tributary levees by more than a foot. Even
worse, the levees could fail.
"All they done is put Visqueen (polyethylene sheet) there to
stop the levee from being cut in two," said Larry Fuller, a wiry
65-year-old farm manager swapping news with neighbors at Chuck's
Dairy Bar in Rolling Fork, which sits in between Greenville and
Vicksburg and is expected to be hard-hit. "We could lose the whole
Delta if that levee breaks."
The situation is grave, but Gerald Galloway, a University of
Maryland civil engineer and former Army Corps officer, said
residents should have confidence in the main levees that hold the
bulk of the river. However, he issued a stern warning.
"There is no such thing as never: it's not a word when you're
dealing with the river. An old Army Corps of Engineers general said
that the best preparation for a war is fighting the river, because
it's always looking for a place to defeat you and it's 24-7 in its
activity," he said.
John Barry, the author of "Rising Tide," a definitive book on
the 1927 flood and a board member of the levee authority in New
Orleans, agreed that the levees would likely hold, but said any
breach would be bad news.
"Once a breach begins to occur, if you're not totally on top of
it immediately with enormous resources, you are in trouble," Barry
said. "There's a lot of water in that river, and it's going to
keep coming for days, if not weeks. It's not a hurricane where you
have a few hours of storm surge."
The 1927 catastrophe occurred after relentless rain the previous
year, followed by more precipitation in the spring. Levees were
busted much farther upstream than Mississippi, but the breach at
Mounds Landing was the most destructive.
The nation vowed to never again see Americans suffer in a flood
of that kind. During an era driven by racism, blacks built levees
at gunpoint, starved in refugee camps and many were left to fend
for themselves during the flood, while whites favored for rescue.
Following the disaster, Congress got the Army Corps of Engineers
to build a 2,203-mile long levee system on the river, but even that
work has been called into question after Hurricane Katrina, when
corps-built levees busted and water filled most of New Orleans,
killing more than 1,600 people.
"When you have a series of failures as you see with Katrina,
and the interstate bridge in St. Paul, people are going to ask,
`What's happening?"' said Galloway, the civil engineer. "The
thing to do is to modernize and upgrade our infrastructure."
At Greenville, the site of the 1927 levee break, families arrive
night and day at the old riverfront to take pictures of the current
flooding. The yacht club is underwater. So, too, is Archer Island,
and the honky tonks and towns out in the basin. The third-floor of
a casino boat, lifted by the swollen Mississippi, can be spotted
from the stools at the Southern Nights Bar & Grill on Main Street.
"I don't think that levee will break," said James Shoffner,
the bar owner. "If it floods, I'll try to get all the whiskey
On the other side of the downtown levee, water has reached
higher than rooftops and is still rising.
"The people living in the Delta are facing the biggest threat
from flooding that they've ever faced in their lifetime," said
Cass Pennington, the president of the Delta Council, an economic
development agency. "You're talking about schools underwater,
The pending flood is grinding the Delta to a halt.
"Right now, I'm short-staffed," said Larry Jue, a 63-year-old
storekeeper working the cash register at his family's 70-year-old
grocery store, the Sam Sing & Co. Store. The family cooperative has
been on the town square in Rolling Fork for as long as anyone can
With no flood insurance and his relatives getting older, a flood
could be the end.
"I don't want to leave," he said. "I've been thinking about
that. Would I come back or not? I may not. Usually a flood like
this, people leave and don't come back."
Rolling Fork, home of the bluesman better known as Muddy Waters,
is also in the area where Theodore Roosevelt came across a black
bear on a hunt in 1902 and refused to shoot, earning him the
nickname "Teddy Bear."
At the south end of the Delta, flooding is a regular event - it
happened in 1973 and as recently as 2008 - but it's always been
contained to the swampland outside the levees.
This is not your typical flood, though.
The Army Corps of Engineers has already taken extraordinary
measures by blowing up a levee in Missouri, and it plans to unlock
spillways in Louisiana that have rarely had to be opened.
Last week, about 1,200 people at a meeting in Rolling Fork were
advised to evacuate. That followed warnings by Gov. Haley Barbour
that catastrophic flooding, a levee break, was possible. For the
past week, workers have been fighting trouble spots on levees.
"Our levees are going to hold. Greenville won't see water. But
our neighbors to the south are poised to get a lot of floodwater,"
said Greenville Mayor Heather McTeer Hudson.
Near Mount Landing, now one of the most fortified spots on the
river, 68-year-old Ruby Taylor Miller talks about feeling safe,
waving her hand at the levee built after the disaster.
Her grandfather was a sharecropper on the Delta Pine & Land
cotton plantation when the levee broke. He told her stories of
saving his six grandchildren from the raging waters and surviving
on rooftops for days. He watched cows frantically swim through the
waters and rescuers arrive in boats.
"Oh, my goodness, do I need to get more insurance? I asked
myself that the other day," the retired schoolteacher said, eking
out a smile.
She, like scores of others, doesn't have flood insurance.
"I feel like the levees are in better shape than they was in,
and they're watching it pretty close," she said. "Unless the
levee breaks, then all bets are off."