Flood threat turns thoughts to 1927

Published 12:00 pm Tuesday, January 12, 2016

By Sid Salter

Seeing the mighty Mississippi River rising out of its banks is an awesome, fearsome sight.

Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant’s end-of-year plea for his constituents to heed flood warnings along the Mississippi River brought back memories of my mother’s Mississippi Delta legacy.

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The fact that Bryant is a son of the Delta whose Mississippi geography carried him along some of the same paths as my mother years apart — and the look of sincere alarm and dread on his face as he shared his recent warning — make the threat resonate with me.

Mississippi’s current flood threat is predicted to be the worst since 2011 and perhaps more dire. Bryant asked Mississippians to “self-evacuate” and gave the warning early while there was still time to escape the rising waters.

Mississippians know that when the Mississippi River floods, the waters back fills the tributaries and the flooding misery spreads. The question lingers: “Are the levies holding?”

As I do whenever I watch the unfolding drama of the approach of historic floodwaters to our state’s Delta region, I cannot help but return to thoughts of my late mother and the stories she told my sisters and me about the Great Flood of 1927.

Like my mother, so many of the victims of that cataclysm have died. Mother was 5 years old when her family was endangered by the 1927 flood that claimed their crops, their possessions and the course of their lives. Mom left the Delta at the age of 5 on a refugee train headed east to high ground and my grandparents’ relatives in Kemper County.

Her escape from the floodwaters began near the Humphreys County hamlet of Midnight — located southeast of Belzoni near the more metropolitan Silver City. The shotgun house where Momma’s family lived is no more.

During a 2000 side trip to Midnight while driving my mother to a class reunion at Mississippi Delta Community College, we did well to find a general location that looked familiar to her. The land changes a lot over 70 years and memories falter.

But her memories of the horrors of the Flood of 1927 were as clear as her memories were at that time of what she’d had for breakfast that day.

Momma remembered the terror she felt watching men carry her elderly grandmother in a chair high over their heads as they waded chest-high in the brown waters to get her to the train. “I remember crying because I was so afraid they would drop Grandma and that she would drown,” my mother said. “Daddy sent me and Grandma back to Kemper County because she was too old to take care of herself and I was too young. I didn’t want Daddy to stay behind, but he was trying to save what he could — but we lost everything.”

At the time, the Great Flood of 1927 was the greatest natural disaster ever to afflict the U.S. and much of the worst of that event took place in Mississippi.

To put it in historical perspective, consider Mississippi’s fortunes over the last 150 years. First there was the Civil War and Reconstruction. Then the 1927 flood fundamentally changed the state’s economy on the verge of the next economic disaster — the Great Depression. With agriculture still struggling to recover after 1927, the Depression delivered the second blow.

By 1933, the state’s industrial jobs had declined by 46 percent and on one day in 1932, one-fourth of the state’s agricultural lands were sold for taxes. There would be other massive floods in 1942 and 1973. Hurricanes would ravage the Gulf Coast in 1969 and 2005.

The message for modern day Mississippians in harm’s way is no different than it was for my mom in 1927 — heed the warnings, move to higher ground, and find a way to endure.

Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at sidsalter@sidsalter.com.