In a time of flooding - an old experience in the Deep South

On the Sept. 11 edition of "Meet the Press," Tim Russert had as a guest John Barry, whose book "Rising Tide" is the definitive study of the great 1927 flood of the Mississippi River.

Russert's topic, of course, was the destruction of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina, the resultant breakdown of the levee system that had kept the waters of Lake Pontchartrain and the Gulf of Mexico from flooding the city, and the subsequent breakdown of governmental help.

But this was not the first disastrous occurrence of inundation. Barry points out in his book that New Orleans was flooded in 1927 by the muddy, rain-swollen waters of the Mississippi - again in the poorer sections - resulting from a combination of physical necessity, politics and levee failure.

In Louisiana, as the water rose inside houses, thousands of people had to chop their way through rooftops or cling to trees, waiting for rescue. In contrast to the 2005 flood, these 1927 flood victims experienced constant rain and unseasonably cold temperatures. Many lives were lost and much property destroyed.

Barry points out that this flood became the turning point, after which the government realized its responsibility to help its people in catastrophic circumstances.

Personal knowledge of the unstoppable power of water was gleaned on more than one occasion by my Mississippi forebears. My maternal grandparents lived in the Delta, where my grandfather managed several plantations in the early 1900s. One flood was remembered by my grandmother, Birdie Forbus, in a March 1930 letter to her son. At the time, they were living on Pluto Plantation on the Yazoo River, a tributary of the Mississippi.

"My dear Wiley.

"In the year 1912 we had the high-est water I have ever been in since living in the delta. The back water came early but no one thought much about having an overflow, as after such a length of time elapsed since any overflow, people get very optimistic over such a thing. I had such a rich spot of ground back of the barn across the road that I planted a large potato patch and they were coming up fine, and each day the sheet of water between our ridge and Mr. Warmacks house and store on the [Yazoo] river bank came nearer.

"I was busy getting our cotton crop planted and the garden planted one morning while I was hoeing the watermelon patch, for they were just peeping through the ground. A negro was preparing his ground near me for planting cotton. Mr. Warmack sent a negro over there to tell us the levee at Bulah had broken and to quit work and go to making boats, for you remember Pluto plantation was made up of three ridges with sloughs dividing each ridge, and there was no way to get from one ridge to the other or to the store but to cross by boat.

"I could look across the pasture and see the water coming much closer each day until one morning after I had made Tilman build up a levee around my potato patch, I found water had gotten there and seaped through the levee, and half my potato patch was in shallow water. They were up fine and had cost me a lot of money for the planting potatoes so I had Tilman help me and we went in and took them up and reset them in the orchard back of the house on the highest part of the ridge. Well they lived, but grew so slowly from mov-ing that we had few potatoes that year.

"There was so little land out and food scarce that the cows had a hard time living. We had a big hay stack on our ridge and to this day I can see in my mind old Ely coming in with just about enough hay on the wagon each load to feed one cow, and Mr. Warmack had a big hurd. A lot of them died after the water was gone from starvation. I had only five and managed to keep them in livable condition. The only way to get to the store was to follow our ridge to the river bank and then down the bank to the store, and the ground got almost impassible because it was so water soaked from having water on each side. The water kept rising until it was almost neck deep in the road in front of the house and we were completely cut off from the barn and had to use a boat. By some chance the water divided and came down in both Sunflower and Yazoo rivers, and this was all that saved us from a real overflow which would not have left a dry spot on Pluto.

"What land that was out was being worked and the crop for you boys was some of the land and Tilman was getting things started. The water had only gotten below the bridge between us and Bee Lake when you boys and Juanita and Bess came home from school. It was still lots of water between our place and Warmacks house and had to get over there by boat to get the mail. Everyone got to work on the crop.

"Sample was still working in the post-office and Sister for Judge Devours. They were both thoughtful of you children and all they made went to help on the family expenses. As I look back today, the three years on Pluto were my easyest years in which I could see how I could meet the obligations with a degree of satisfaction and ease of mind.

"I must say how my watermelon crop almost came to grief. Papa sent old Billy Hodson who was blind in one eye and not much better in the other to plow the patch. He had let the plow uproot every plant but one row, so I told him he could quit, that it took two good eyes to plow for me.

"I never saw so many snakes, cootes, turtles and aligators as there was when the water began falling. You could hear aligators lowin like a bull as they would cross the ridges going from one slough to another. Several were captured by the negroes and tied in the water and were still there in July when Sample came home on a two weeks vacation. I am sure you remember how he enjoyed taking pictures of them, which are yet stored here in an old trunk. Sample and Ed made up a trip to Horseshoe Lake, a place ten miles from Pluto [just north of Tchula] where there had been many weared [weird] storys about the lake and what it held for those who ventured out upon it. These storys always came from the negroes, and my having so little superstition in my makeup, I was not afraid of hair rising experiances which were always spoken of as 'they' say.

"The story went that there was no bottom to the lake, that it was full of murmaids, and often a horses head would rise with a tail like a fish, and that several men had ventured out in the lake who have never been seen anymore, not even the boat they were in. Aligators were there in numbers and there were all kinds of sounds of distress in the water which was as black as ink.

"So with all this story they were to go and get the scare of a lifetime. Up early with their lunches and camera off they went. It was full of underbrush and big cypres trees all round the lake. The water being so surrounded by this thick rubbish, it took some time to get through to where all these wonders of the world were to be seen. Around this lake, woods was known to be the home of the crane birds, and there they nested and raised their young. They found this to be true and on most every bush was a nest with a baby crane so they be- came very much enthused over their being so tame, and there was where they made most of their pictures. Some of the limbs would extend out over the water and on the limb a nest of young ones. They got sight of one aligator and many poisonous snakes, but for all this, the sights of my story they did not see. No boat was in the lake so they did not get out on the water. They came back much elated over the days experiance and had many good pictures but that was all. Samples vacation ended and he returned to the post office and you boys went on with the crop."

"Much love



On other occasions of high water, Mississippi riverboats were able to travel all the way up flooded tributaries of the big river to Lake Tchula, much to the delight of the folks living around there.

In the great flood of 1927, Birdie's most valuable and beloved possession, her piano, was destroyed, and rats made a home in its remains. Later, after it dried out, its wood parts were retrieved and a chest made from the pieces.

The letter is reprinted from "Birdie: Mississippi Grit," by Dale Forbus Hogle. Hogle is a longtime Magnolia resident and occasional contributor to the Queen Anne News and Magnolia News.

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