There has been heavy rain and flooding in the Dakotas and parts of the Midwest recently, and this weekend the Mississippi River is expected to reach major flood stage in Iowa, Illinois and Missouri.
As bad as things will be this holiday weekend, it won’t be anything like the Great Flood of 1927, fortunately.
That’s what this song by Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie (covered by Led Zeppelin decades later) is about – a levee breaking (there’s a picture of it in the video below) and flooding nearby Greenville, Mississippi.
The Mississippi River Watershed
The Mississippi River drains 31 states and two Canadian provinces as it flows over 2,300 miles from Lake Itasca, Minnesota, to the Gulf of Mexico. Its watershed stretches from the Allegheny Mountains in the east to the Rocky Mountains in the west.
At Lake Itasca, the river’s average flow rate is 6 cubic feet per second. By the time the Mississippi reaches New Orleans, its average flow rate is 600,000 cubic feet per second.
During the 1927 flood, the highest recorded flow rate was 2,345,000 cubic feet per second!
All that water came from heavy rain and snow fall over much of the Mississippi’s 1.25-million-square-mile watershed.
The Great Flood
The trouble began during the summer of 1926. That August, a lot of rain fell over both the upper and lower Mississippi River basins, flooding much of the central basin.
The rains started again and continued from October through December. Heavy snowstorms also hit Montana and South Dakota on December 13th.
On New Year’s Day, the Mississippi River at Cairo, Illinois, was at flood stage and would remain that way for the next 153 days.
In mid-January, it started raining again, adding pressure to already strained levees.
By February 12th, the water height at Memphis was 37.8 feet. It never went below 30 feet for the next month as an early spring melted snow and poured more rainfall into the upper basin.
The levees handled the subsequent high water, but the flow rate in the Mississippi was strong enough to back up the Ohio River, making it flow backwards for a few days.
Severe weather hit the lower basin in March. Rainfall was heavy, and three killer tornadoes between March 17th and March 20th damaged some levees. By the end of the month every levee board had patrols out 24/7 watching for breaches.
Some levees did fail in April. On April 12, Frederick Brist of the National Weather Bureau at Memphis said:
The future of the high water now depends on the movement of a storm centered today over northwest Texas. If it travels north we will miss further rain. If it goes over the Ohio Valley there will be another tale to tell.
— from “When the Levee Breaks,” by Patrick O’Daniel
It moved into the Ohio Valley.
The flood stage at Cairo soon reached a record-breaking 55 feet and was forecast to go higher. At Memphis, the river was at 42.3 feet and rising. The main levee at Columbus, Kentucky, broke, flooding that city and nearby regions.
On April 15th, 6-15 inches of rain fell on a region stretching from Texas, through Missouri and Illinois, to Alabama and the Gulf Coast. New Orleans got almost 15 inches of rain over 18 hours, leaving parts of the city under four feet of water just from rainfall.
After this, Weather Bureau forecasters said the resulting flooding from Cairo southwards would be the greatest on record.
It wasn’t an overstatement as these pictures, posted in a YouTube video by the Vicksburg District of the US Army Corps of Engineers, show:
On April 16th, 1,200 feet of a main levee broke, 30 miles south of Cairo, flooding 175,000 acres.
At 8 a.m. on April 21st, the Mounds Landing levee, upriver of Greenville, Mississippi, opened up a three-quarter-mile-wide crevasse, killing many of the black men working there. For 60 miles east and 90 miles south, the Mississippi Delta region turned into a sea, leaving tens of thousands of people stranded.
By April 23rd, 10,000 refugees crowded onto the eight-foot-wide crown of the Greenville levee. There would be 13,000 there by the 25th. Boats arrived that had room for all the people, but only white women and children – a total of 33 people – were allowed to leave.
The flood crest moved south.
A Signal Corps video, with 1927 footage and released in 1936, shows flooding along other sections of the Mississippi, including Avoyelles Parish, north of New Orleans, between Baton Rouge and Natchez.
The river almost topped the levees protecting New Orleans, but the water level had actually started to go down when they blew up the Poydras levee, an event covered by news cameras.
The flooding it caused in Plaquemines Parish was overlooked by everybody but the thousands of black and white Plaquemines residents who were forced out their homes. Only a few lucky ones ever got the promised compensation…and then only at 10 cents on the dollar.
All in all, main levees along the Mississippi broke in over 200 places. Besides Mounds Landing, the worst breaches were at New Madrid, Missouri, and Mellwood, Arkansas. Overall, some 250 people died immediately, and the ultimate death toll from disease and exposure may have been over 1,000.
Some 25,000 people crowded into refugee camps. Many of them were African Americans, who were generally mistreated and sometimes beaten, raped, or murdered.
It took some four months for all the flood waters to recede. The social and political consequences spanned a longer period of time.
Will it happen again?
Sure it will.
In the 1973 flood, when the Mississippi’s average flow rate almost equaled that of 1927. The strain almost collapsed the Old River Control Structure.
If that had happened, the Atchafalaya River would have captured the Mississippi’s main flow, leading to untold economic, political and social upheaval.
All in all, there have been 19 major flooding events along the Mississippi River since 1927. The worst, besides 1973, were in 1983 along the lower Mississippi, in 1993 in the upper basin (the worst since 1927) and 2011.
Great things happen along a great river, not all of them good. People learn to adapt and stay flexible. That’s the way it always has been, when living next to Ole Man River, and that’s the way it always will be.
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Mississippi River Facts. US National Park Service.
Mississippi River Anatomy. America’s Wetland Foundation.
Patrick O’Daniel. When the Levee Breaks: Memphis and the Mississippi Valley Flood of 1927. History Press. Charleston, South Carolina. 2013.
Fatal Flood: Timeline. National Public Radio.
Ernest Zabrowski and Judith Howard. Category 5: The Story of Camille. University of Michigan Press. 2005.
Floods on the Lower Mississippi: An Historical Economic Overview. Trotter et al., National Weather Service.