CHARLIE MITCHELL: Flood of 2011 carves its own channel in history

By Charlie Mitchell

OXFORD – Of all who told me stories about the Great Flood of 1927, I liked listening to Dan Wilson’s best.
He was a child, living with his parents in a shack not too far from Eagle Lake in south Issaquena County. As is true today and even without television, everybody knew the river was rising. Most of the yard had disappeared, inch by inch, day by day. The chickens had moved to the roofs of their coops. The whole corncrib had been raised, placed on metal barrels. The house was dry, but Dan’s father had dragged up a pirogue and tied it to a post on the porch.
What the family didn’t know when they went to bed one night was that a levee several miles away had failed. Dan, an old man by the time he would recall the event, said he was awakened by water lap, lap, lapping at the underside of the shack’s floorboards. The creeping water had become a torrent. By the light of a lantern, his parents ferried the children and at least some of their belongings to higher ground where they could await rescue – joining the 700,000 people who became refugees of the Mississippi that awesome year.
In many ways, Dan’s story mirrored that of thousands families along the river’s course. In Dan’s case, his parents were a generation out of slavery. They made a subsistence living as sharecroppers and had occasional cash from day labor jobs. They did the best they could and, though hemmed in by Jim Crow laws, had good times. Dan told those stories, too.
When the water receded, Congress passed the Flood Control Act of 1928 and by the time Dan grew up, the Army Corps of Engineers, tasked with designing and building better floodworks, was hiring. Dan got a job as a cook on a crewboat.
He spent 25 years on the Mississippi, preparing hot meals for the generals and other visiting dignitaries and inspectors as well as the weary workers who labored to dredge channels, place weirs and revetments and conduct all the other tasks specialists thought would help make the Mississippi “behave.”
Dan was able to provide for his own family in this way. They moved to town, breaking the cycle of sharecropping. His children went to school, then to universities where some received graduate degrees and gained important jobs well away from Mississippi.
For weeks, the Mississippi has been resisting efforts to do what people want it to do. It is putting decades of engineering and construction to the test. For all his lifetime, Dan was positive there would never be a flood worse than ’27, but Mother Nature disagreed. People are standing, gazing in awe.
Comparisons of 2011 and 1927 are inevitable, but it is largely an apples and oranges thing. The river today is not the river of 84 years ago. By actual measure from its headwaters to the Gulf of Mexico, the length of the Mississippi changes up to 40 miles every year.
In addition to all the channelization and weirs, the effects of thousands of additional acres of cleared lands, thousands of drainage works well away from the main channel, there are dozens of locks, dams, control structures and reservoirs and hundreds of miles of networked levees in play.
There has been plenty of modeling, but no one can be absolutely sure where the water will go or how deep it will get.
Due to population growth and development, there’s little reason to doubt that the Flood of 2011 will exact a higher financial cost than the Flood of 1927 – but danger and dollars are not the only factors to consider.
From his dad’s decision to have that pirogue tied up and waiting, Dan said he learned the value of planning ahead. Without the boat, the family would have joined the 246 who did perish in the high water. That’s a fact Dan emphasized every time I could get him to tell the story.
And because of the flood, Congress did act. Dan got one of the thousands of jobs that resulted. He earned and saved so his children could have opportunities that were not available to him.
Maybe the Flood of 2011 won’t be followed by the profound impact on lives that followed 1927, but floods do change lives. Unless a levee breaks, the water rises slow, falls slow. Either way, the world is not quite the same afterward.

Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or email cmitchell43@yahoo.com.