The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927

Listening to  a May 11thinterview on NPR about the flooded community of Greenville, Mississippi I can’t help but reflect on Blithewold’s Estelle Clements. Estelle was visiting her brothers in Greenville during the historic flooding of the Mississippi River in 1927. Perhaps there are some similarities between her experience and those of the current flood victims.

What will likely come to be known as the great flood of 2011 is rolling down the Mississippi River. High water now threatens communities in the Mississippi Delta. As NPR’s Debbie Elliott reports, people there are anxiously wondering if the levees will hold . . .

ELLIOTT: Fifty-nine-year-old Adelia Sutton is pointing to a spot halfway up the levee. She says she’s never seen the water so high. Like everyone else here, she’s counting on the levee to hold and protect her home in Greenville. But just in case…

Ms. SUTTON: I got my suitcase at the front door. I’ve got my important paper and books on the table ready to go, ready to go.

As the Army Corps of Engineers works diligently to control this historic flooding many comparisons are being drawn to the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, which was the most destructive river flood in American history. [1] Fueled by excessive rains during the summer of 1926, the flood devastated areas of the Mississippi Delta. To put it into perspective about 14% of land in Arkansas was underwater and some portions of the river swelled to 60 miles in width. All in all over 27,000 square miles were flooded, that’s more than 22 times the size of Rhode Island! Many historians consider the flood to be a primary cause of the Great Migration of African Americans from the Mississippi Delta to northern cities. Also while President Coolidge did virtually nothing to aid the flood victims Herbert Hoover headed the flood relief operations, an accomplishment which propelled him to the presidency in 1928. One of the hardest hit areas was Greenville Mississippi. [2] Estelle Clements lived there periodically with her brothers Henry and Will—in fact Will was an engineer responsible for work on the Mississippi’s system of levees.  Since Estelle was in Greenville during the floods, her journal give us a unique perspective.

April 14:  Heavy rain in evening, thunder and lightning.  The lights went out.

April 16:  The water of the river is so high that no motors are allowed on the levee to interfere with the taking on and off of cargo, assembling material for levee work.

April 19:  Will drove me to the levee after supper.  River gauge was 53.6.

April 20:  Much water over the road.

Despite valiant efforts at reinforcement, the two levees protecting Greenville, Miller Bend and Mound Landing, finally broke on the morning of April 21st.

April 21:  Levee went out at Stops Landing near Scott at 7.45 am.  I will not go north until the railroads are running again. [Estelle was waiting to rejoin the McKees in Boston]

Thanks to an alarm the residents of Greenville had time to prepare their homes for the flood damage. Many, like Estelle and her brothers, had experience with such disasters and were able to take the necessary precautions.

April 22:  Will…moved up all the furniture but the sideboard and piano from the ground floor to upstairs.  The water began coming over the protection levee at about 7am and the water soon covered the streets.  Flat bottomed boats began to be used, and mules and cows came from out of town and were driven down to the levee.

Amazingly, life in Greenville continued: newspapers, banks, telephone and electric service operated despite the flooding. Residents—including Will–simply traveled around town by boat.

April 23:  Will got a small boat and did errands.  No way of getting out of town.  Water about the house is three feet and more.  Ceased rising at 4 pm.  We have had no furnace heat for three days, the piano is up on three chairs.  We sat on the porch…and watched the boats moving about.  The water has come in the building opposite. April 24:  A strange Sunday with no service in the church.  The only getting about was in boats.  Some men had horses. 

Despite this odd normalcy, steamboats evacuated many of Greenville’s women and children to drier land in the cities of Vicksburg and Memphis.

April 25:  We left the house toward noon from the back door in a high wagon sitting on our suit cases, and drove to the levee very slowly.  Here we sat for a long time, the small boat we were to cross the river in not appearing.  A Government freight boat came from below bringing supplies, and the captain offered to take us to Vicksburg.  So about 20 women and children got on board.  The captain and crew offered their rooms so the women and children could rest.   …… put us in motors that took us to the hospital where we were comfortably housed. 

Much work was done to repair and improve the levees surrounding Greenville. Thanks to this the waters receded and Greenville was spared from the second wave of floods that came in June.

[1] At least until the toll of this current flood can be fully measured.

[2] The following information and photos about Greenville are courtesy of “Mississippi History Now”, a website published by the Mississippi Historical Society. Estelle’s journal excerpts were retrieved from the Blithewold archives.