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 were rescued.
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 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 out.”
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, highways 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 remember.
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.
At 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.”
Cain Burdeau/The Associated Press