It’s raining again. Though rain is not unusual this time of year, the patterns have been devilish. Unplowed fields were already flooded, as were some sections where farmers had managed to get a stand of corn or soybeans. Once again, we are reminded of just how precarious the business of farming can be.
The Delta has seen worse. In 1927, after months of rain produced swollen levees along the Mississippi River, the structures finally gave way, flooding much of our state. In all, as stated in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas:
“ … the Flood of 1927 covered about 6,600 square miles, with thirty-six out of seventy-five Arkansas counties under water up to thirty feet deep in places. In Arkansas, more people were affected by the floodwaters (over 350,000), more farmland inundated (over two million acres), more Red Cross camps were needed (eighty of the 154 total), and more families received relief than any other state (41,243). In Arkansas, almost 100 people died, more than any state except Mississippi. In monetary terms, the losses in Arkansas (totaling over $1 million in 1927 dollars for relief and recovery) surpassed any other affected state.”
My father, then a young man with relatives in Golconda, Illinois, worked in flood relief efforts at the junction of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. The flood changed lives, the course of waterways, and the composition of soil in the Delta for generations to come.
John M. Barry provides a particularly moving account of the flood and its aftermath in his 1997 classic, Rising Tide, a must-read for any American. He relates how African-American refugees, encamped near railroads being used for evacuations, saw an opportunity to escape the south and relocate to, perhaps, a better life in the north. Outmaneuvered, they were held captives at gunpoint upon request of landowners who feared the loss of cheap labor.
In a prophetic prologue to Katrina, Barry recounts how a poor Louisiana parish, in order to save New Orleans, allowed the dynamiting of its levees, and subsequent flooding, with the promise of payment for damages to the property owners. Legally outwitted, none were ever paid.
It is a reminder that disasters seem to bring out the best and worst in us, as citizens. Some rush to help. A few rush to loot or profit. Politicians vote to provide, or deny, funds for relief. Responses vary. At the same time, as we have seen so often, and so recently, disasters can bind us closer. They illustrate, at times, the eternal gift of humans to accept and deal with fate, as illustrated so eloquently in the classic song by Arkansan Johnny Cash about another flood, “Five Feet High and Rising.”
Hey, come look through the window pane,
The bus is comin', gonna take us to the train
Looks like we'll be blessed with a little more rain,
4 feet high and risin'”