BILL MINOR: The Mighty Mississippi reminds everyone of its daunting power

JACKSON – John M. Barry’s page-turning “Rising Tide,” his remarkable historical tale about the Great Mississippi flood of 1927 was in such demand hereabouts last week that there were waiting lists at every Jackson library.
Barry’s book far more than retells what was then called the nation’s greatest natural disaster, it relates in absorbing detail how the flood transformed part of the nation and unmasked the drama of post-Civil War race relations tied to the great river. It’s often said, too, that Herbert Hoover’s leadership overseeing massive rescue and rehabilitation elected him president in 1928.
The Great Flood of 1927 stood as the high water mark until river history – certainly in the state of Mississippi – was rewritten this week by what many are already calling the “Great Mississippi Flood of 2011.”
Much has changed in the 84 years since the 1927 flood, yet one thing is a constant: the mighty river itself, and man’s sometimes futile struggle to harness it. Barry’s 1997 prize-winning book concludes with doubts of whether or not the Army Corps of Engineers, which still basically relies on the mainline levees to contain the river on a springtime rampage as it was last week, is ready for another ultimate test.
No one in his wildest dreams back in 1927 would have imagined that in 2011 one of the most vulnerable targets of a rampaging Mississippi would be 19 dockside casinos, all of which had shut down early last week by flood water, adding 12,000 workers to the state’s jobless ranks and costing the state $13 million a month in revenue.
Back in 1927, record rainfall for weeks throughout the river basin sent the Mississippi higher than ever before. In 2011, the Big Muddy has been fed not only by above average rainfall, but snow melt from record winter snowfall that spread all the way to the East Coast. Virtually distracted by a rash of killer tornadoes that hit the state only a week earlier, many Mississippians couldn’t comprehend the immense amount of floodwater that would be sent down the Mississippi until stories and photos began dominating TV and print news.
Already, as of last Sunday the river had reached a higher level at Vicksburg than any time in recorded history, including the Great Flood of 1927, which historians called the greatest natural disaster to ever hit America. Ye gods, isn’t that what we had called Hurricane Katrina in August, 2005? Several other points along the river evidently would also chalk up new record highs. Quickly, in early May flood waters that oozed into the lowlands and Yazoo River backwater area around Vicksburg, drove 2,800 residents from their homes and soon would top 5,000. And if there is a break in the mainline levee system, tens of thousands more. As of last weekend, the Corps of Engineers was optimistic the levees would hold and torrents would not come roaring into the flat Delta as it had after the Mound Landing crevasse April 19, 1927.
Many in our region, however, remember the Corps’ levee failures at New Orleans in August, 2005, when Hurricane Katrina-driven floodwaters from Lake Pontchartrain topped and crumbled Corps-constructed levees, inundating some 80 percent of the Crescent City for four weeks.
Obviously the Corps worried what could happen down river when they opened many of the massive gates of the Morganza floodway near Baton Rouge to send 1.5 million cubic feet per second of water down the Atchafalaya River toward the Gulf of Mexico rather than toward New Orleans. A rampaging Mississippi River renews an age-old fear on the busy docks and boardrooms in the great Port of New Orleans: that the natural course of Big Muddy to the sea is down the Atchafalaya. Should that ever happen, the Port of New Orleans would become a salt water inland port.
When the great river is bursting at its seams, anybody in her path is in trouble.

Columnist Bill Minor has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him through Ed Inman at edinman@earthlink.net.

Bill Minor