First recorded in 1929, did you know that the acclaimed Led Zepplin song “When the Levee Breaks” was about the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927? On April 21, 1927, following months of unprecedented rainfall throughout a watershed covering much of the United States, the mainline Mississippi River levee crevassed north of Greenville, Mississippi, creating the worse US national disaster until Hurricane Katrina. The event shaped the Delta, Mississippi, national flood control policy. Some claim it even changed America itself. Ramsey Russell and Hank Burdine are both natives of the Mississippi Delta with strong connections to Greenville. Keeping it light and conversational, they meet in the South Delta to discuss this epoch event 95 years later.
A couple really great books have been written on this topic to include Deep’n as It Come: The 1927 Mississippi River Flood and Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How it Changed America
Shaping Lives: The Flood of ‘27
Ramsey Russell: Welcome back to Duck Season Somewhere, I am in the South Delta of Mississippi and those of you that know today’s guest, know to hang on, shut up and get ready for the ride, running down dirt roads. Today’s guest is Mr. Hank Burdine, he and I are going to talk about one of the most life changing events in my grandfather’s day. Now, my grandfather told me about the flood of ‘27 his whole life, it absolutely shaped his life in the Mississippi Delta. As you all going to learn today, it shaped the whole United States of America. Hank, how are you today?
Hank Burdine: Man, I’m doing fine. And boy, we couldn’t have picked a better place to have this interview than right down here in the Bayou of the South Delta, backed up to the Yazoo River where 41% of the water in the United States of America come right by this doorstep right out here, every year. Right now, we’re about 3ft or 4ft below flood stage, got a lot of water everywhere, our gates are open at Steele Bayou, so the water in the South Delta is flowing out. But this is it, man, this is ground zero when you’re talking about water in the Mississippi river. And the massive amount of water that flows down through here, it’s unreal, folks don’t understand that, don’t realize it.
Ramsey Russell: I remembered on the way over one of the podcast we did last year about Mr. Holt Collier, he made his living selling bears to the labor that had come in to clear the timber for agriculture and also to build these levees. What is about these levees down here? Tell somebody listening that don’t understand the Mississippi Delta, what about the levees?
Hank Burdine: Well, your levees are what were built originally when you came off down in here, there was no levee protection, it was an alluvial bottomland hardwood swamp. It was the last uncleared place in America, uninhabited place in America because you couldn’t get down in here, 1820s, 1830s, it was a swamp. The only way you could get in here was come to Vicksburg, come up to Steele Bayou, come over into Deer Creek, take a little shuttle boats up in there because those at that time were clear, free running stream they had clear water in them, had white sanded bottoms and Deer Creek came out of the river around Lake Whittington at Scott Mississippi. And like I said before, 41% of the continental United States drains right through here. We get 80% of our water out of the Ohio river system in that basin, we get the sediment load out of the Missouri River coming out from all west. So our top soil here, whereas in other parts of the country, you may have 6 inches or a foot of top soil, we got 120ft of top soil right here because all that water that comes through here, everything that drains down there bringing all of that dirt that’s in a emulsified form in there. And if anything about rivers and streams and creeks and bayou and such and not necessarily bayou, but your creeks, your rivers and streams. You’ve got a Riparian river bank on either side of the river, it’s higher ground than anywhere else. And the reason is because as the river would overflow, your heavier particles would fall out first and that’s your sandy particles and that’s why you look at Deer Creek, you look at the Sunflower River, you look at the Mississippi River, you’ve got sandy loam along the banks and it goes off into a heavier what we call buckshot, which is a heavy clay substance. Well, that’s where the water pools, once it gets off of that river bank and it pulls down there, then the finer solids fall out and that’s your heavy clay, which cracks wide open that we know as buckshot. So, during those days, as people came up and began to clear the land as they came up, Deer Creek, came up Steele Bayou were on the Mississippi River, they realized that these floods were happening every year, spring time and then you had wintertime floods. Well, they started building levees around these separate individual plantations. If you go down Bayou road in Greenville, where we were raised, there’s a slave built levee right on the side of the levee and that’s on the edge of Rattlesnake Bayou and that’s why Bayou Road was called Bayou Road because it followed along the banks of Rattlesnake Bayou and in front of the Keaten’s house, in front of the Percy’s house there, that old slave made levee is still standing to this day. Well, what they found and around New Orleans too, as you came up through New Orleans, the sugar cane plantations and all like that, if they had labor, if they had slaves or they had labor that they could get in there and build a levee around their plantation, well, they were okay when the river rose. Well, what that did that pushed the water on the neighbor and then the neighbor got mad as hell. Well, you putting your water on me, so he built his levee taller than the other guy’s levee, well, then that push water over on him. So those were the beginnings of a somewhat primitive levee system which were private levees. And they realized, well, they had to be able to tie all these things together, so it didn’t work too good as they began trying to tie these levees together. And then, of course, the thing about the Mississippi river and if I choke up talking about it every now and then, because I respect that thing out there more than you can ever imagine. We have a lot of fun on the river as you well know, but we don’t play on the river because you cannot play on that Mississippi River, one mistake, it’s all over, it’s done, it’s an unforgiving river out there, so you got to be real careful. But back in those days, they realized that they could build these levees and start building them higher and higher and they started tying this district in or tying that district in. But there was no continuous plan for the whole levee system up and down the Mississippi River.
A History of the Great Mississippi River Levee
Ramsey Russell: You talk about that Mississippi river and I just was always, haven’t been on that river, it’s like the entire, all of the force of nature in the universe, right between two river banks is how I think of that river. It is a whole – and coming from Greenville, Mississippi as a child, my childhood is like this, for those you all that have never been here, it is flat, flat as part of Mississippi. It’s just not truly flat like a pool table, but it’s flat region swells because that topography, he described the river having formed through meanders and the Crevasse, but it’s flat, you can see agriculture all the way out to the horizon. And as a young child, the only elevation we had were two things, the Mississippi River levee and Indian mounds because the primitive people had to get out of that water too.
Hank Burdine: That’s true. And we have such a complex of Indian mounds that one of them right north of Greenville and scattered all around through here, we have Indian mounds that you see, there’s an Indian mound trail, coming in here right now, you got ball ground plantation, that was an Indian enclave, whatever they play with the sticks and the ball, that come from an Indian game that they used to play right here where we’re talking. And the thing about the topography you are talking about, it is the alluvial floodplain of the Yazoo River and the Mississippi River, starts around Memphis, Tennessee, widens out to about 50 miles wide between and Greenwood and narrows back down into where Vicksburg is. Now, at one time, the Ohio River was supposed to have come through the Yazoo river before it changed its course and which rivers do constantly and that is the thing about the Mississippi River and the levee system here and we’ll get into the origins of the levees that we have now and how that was done and put together. But the Mississippi River is such a dynamic force, like I said before, 41% of the continental United States and 2 provinces out of Canada drain right through here. And even with our levee systems, we have now during the last major flood which is 2011, that river is, it surfs like this, as it comes around the bend, it lowers itself on one side and rises up on the other side and lowers itself back down. And when you and I were growing up, we could go out on the river and there’d be a big sand bar here one year, next year, that sand bar be gone, it’d be upstream or downstream and it’s a totally vibrant meandering creature at that time, that was before the Corp of Engineers implemented and completed their dyke systems, which we might be getting a little ahead of myself. But by putting these dykes out there, we are forcing the river to go where we want it to go to maintain by the Mississippi River Tributaries Act, which came from the Flood Control Act in 1928, after 1927 flood. One of the prerequisite was to maintain navigation on that river and to do that, you force the river to go where you want it to go and as those of us that spend time on the river know that when you come around a bend, it’s the outside current that is moving the fastest and the sandbars grow on the inside of that bend. Well, if you leave that unchecked, then the river will cut into the bank and if you’ve got a levee over there, it’ll eventually cut into that levee and destroy that levee. And here you go, you lost your flood protection. So we go in and we rivet those outside bins on the outside where the current hits it and that with concrete mats and that’s a major undertaking of the Corp of Engineers every year when we laying these mats out there. And the dykes force the water over there, the revetments keep the force of the water from cutting into the bank and so doing it scours out the bottom of the river which allows during low water, our 8ft channel that we have to maintain by law to keep barge traffic going up and down the river.
Ramsey Russell: 8ft. When did they start building these modern day levees? What I look at is the main line levee, I call it when did that all –
There She Goes: A Break in the Levee
And that created the crevasse at Mound’s Landing which caused the 1927 flood in Mississippi.
Hank Burdine: That is called the main line levee. What all happened back in 1865, state legislator created the Mississippi Levee Board, which is the levee board that entails the 6 or 7 counties of the south part of the Delta, it goes up to the North South Bolivar County Line and from there, 2 years later, they created the Yazoo Mississippi Delta Levee Board, which is based in Clarksdale and carries all the upper counties of the Mississippi Delta. Those two Levee boards work separately, one is in the Vicksburg District, we’re in the Vicksburg district, the upper levee board is in the Memphis District, but it’s all tied in together. Because after the 1927 flood, the ideas of levees only protection, they realized that wasn’t going to work because as they cleared land, as they dumped more water into the river in a quicker fashion, then those levees had to be built higher and higher each year to contain the not extra amount of water, but the water that got into the system quicker and that would cause higher floods each year. All right, the 1927 flood came after months and months of rain up the Ohio Basin and not only up there but down in the south too, it rained incessantly. And General Gallatin Paxton, you remember who I’m talking about? I grew up next door to him, he had fought in World War I and was heading up the National Guard in Greenville during the 20s and was put in charge of flood protection when this event began showing itself. We had to get labor from Parkman penitentiary, we had to get labor from everywhere we could to begin sandbagging these levees, the low parts of the levees, they knew it was going to overtop and it did on the morning that the levee broke at mound landing right at Scott Mississippi. General Gallatin Paxton, he wasn’t a general at that time, called up there, he was on the telephone talking and all of a sudden, the guy said, there she goes and he said, he will never forget those three words, the rest of his life. And that created the crevasse at Mound’s Landing which caused the 1927 flood in Mississippi. Now, all up and down that –
Ramsey Russell: Before that event, as I heard it said, all up and down, both sides of the river, that water was so high for so long, everybody knew it was going to break somewhere that they actually had to put patrols on the levee to keep folk from coming across the river and dynamite or digging or blowing to make it come off on my side than the other side.
The Largest Natural Disaster in America Until Katrina
… it started off a small crevasse and then it got bigger and bigger to where it was about a quarter of a mile, maybe a half a mile wide at its widest point at the break and that’s a massive amount of water coming through there though.
Hank Burdine: That’s right. If the folks from Arkansas wanted to protect their land, they’d come over and dynamite levee on the Mississippi side and that took the pressure off, they were okay. Same thing about Arkansas, if Mississippi folks going to come over and dynamite them. Now, William Alexander Percy’s definitive book on the Mississippi Delta, which is a major part of it talks about the Mississippi river, the name of it is lanterns on the levee and that’s when they would patrol the levee with lanterns, looking for folks up there trying to destroy the levee. Now, during that time in 1927 all up and down the river, there were total of 16.5 million acres were flooded, it’s 170 different counties in 7 states, it caused $102 million in crop losses, 42,000 buildings were destroyed, 6000 boats were used in the rescue work and I’m reading this out of the data is how I’m where I’m finding all this. 326,000 people were cared for in 150 Red Cross camps, 312,000 were fed by the Red Cross and between 250-500 people were killed in that flood. Now, at that time, it was the largest natural disaster in America, the 1927 flood was, until Katrina. So that tells you how big it was and how massive it was and the undertaking it took to get everything back going again.
Ramsey Russell: I want to read an excerpt from a book too because I just found this, 25 miles in Leland, Mississippi, 25 miles from where the levee broke. A witness watched the flood come in waves, 5ft or 6ft deep and rolling and I had never seen it come like that, so dangerous looking and all the floods I had seen, she’d seen a bunch, there was a man standing on the railroad track below the old mill and when the water hit the track, it washed out all the way under the track, the man into it and he was never seen again. They talk about mud and cows and when the levee broke, the water came, just wooshing. You could see it coming, just see big waves of it coming, it came so fast until you just got excited because you didn’t have time to do nothing. Nothing but knock a hole in your ceiling and try to get through it if you could, it was riding so fast people didn’t get a chance to get nothing. People and dogs and everything like that on top of house, you see cows and hogs trying to get somewhere where people would rescue them, cows just swimming and those on the farm house didn’t have no ceiling that would hold nobody. It happened just in the snap of the fingers, once that levee broke the water come rushing.
Hank Burdine: It did. But it didn’t often come in the 4ft, 5ft waves that, that described because it was coming out in such a wide expanse, it started off a small crevasse and then it got bigger and bigger to where it was about a quarter of a mile, maybe a half a mile wide at its widest point at the break and that’s a massive amount of water coming through there though. But in Greenville, it crept up slowly and they had some protection levees in Greenville and they tied those protection levees into the railroad tracks to help protect Greenville in the case of a flood. So in some instances in the lower lying areas, it did come in the 3ft and 4ft waves of seething yellow cold infested water. But in other higher ground, it crept up slowly. And yes, Holt Collier, we talked about Holt earlier, he built the house up on the north side of town, it’s the only two story house up there. And the reason he built the two story because he knew what could happen when that levee broke. And so he built his house two story so he could go up there and live. Now, there’s another story right around here at Redwood, Mississippi, which is where we are Howard’s daddy, instrumental in the beginning of the industry on the Mississippi River grew up right here at Redwood. And his daddy, Howard’s granddaddy had a little packet boat to go up still by and go up Deer Creek service and old plantations and all like that. And Howard tells the story, his daddy was a little boy but on his daddy, Howard granddaddy’s boat during that flood, going up, retrieving people getting folks off the houses, getting them away from the flood and all like that and they said they came up on one house and had a little bar that everybody could get on, came up on one house and it had a whole family of people standing on the top of the house waving their arms. They pushed up to the house, got everybody off of the house and when they pulled off of it, the house floated up and crumbled into pieces and went away with the flood. He said, the weight of the people on top of that house were holding it down. Now, my dear friend John Johnson, he was an 80 year old black man when I knew him, he was the best man in my wedding, he would tell the stories of the 1927 flood when he lived right there in Greenville and he would go to the main post office right there and they supplied him with a boat. He said, he was one of the only African American that they gave a boat to and told him to go out and bring folks in, do what he could to help people get them out of the tree tops, get them off the house, get them back to the levee where they’d be safe and he’d go get his boat each day. And he said he had plenty of money back then because everybody out in the country had him of whiskey bar out in the backyard. Well, that wasn’t full of whiskey because I always taking a drink out of it said under 3ft of water, every one of them case of whiskey would float up and they just be floating out there and he said, he’d load his boat up with whiskey, go to it and sell it on the levee, he said, he had plenty of money, he could have bought all that land up around the northeast part of Greenville. So he tells some great stories about that time. But there were horrible, miserable stories too about the folks that, I got to be careful how we say this, that were forced to remain and stay on the levee and refugee camps instead of loading them on barges and sending them to Vicksburg.
Ramsey Russell: That’s exactly what it was like. Some of the only dry ground around them for miles, I’m guessing a lot of the poor folks in society were just relegated to live on that old muddy levee.
Hank Burdine: Well, a lot of the folks that had ways to get out before the flood did, went to the hills, went to the North Delta, live with relatives, got away from here on the trains, as long as the trains ran that could. But then, a lot of the farm labor and all did not have that opportunity. And that book, they rising tide, it explains about how and why a lot of the folks stayed, were basically forced to stay in camps looked after by the Red Cross on the levee. And not only were the people up there, the horses, the cows, the mules, the chickens, the dogs, everybody, the wildlife, the deer bear, everything was on that levee because it’s the only thing out of water.
Ramsey Russell: My grandfather was 13 years old, you showed me a picture the other night in that book, that’s the only copy I’ve seen of that picture. But his father had established the first car dealership as I understand it right there in Greenville, Mississippi. It was a dodge dealership and he talked about how they propped up those motors so they could drive down some of those flooded streets in that boat and keep the engine out. And I guess maybe they just had a two story house they could live in, but they stayed to take care of things.
Hank Burdine: Well, a lot of them did and a lot of the houses, the bigger houses had 2, some of them 3 story, you had the Percy mansion right side and Senator Percy was in charge of flood relief. And of course, they stayed and his wife, Miss Camille said, if he wasn’t leaving, she wasn’t going to leave, so she stayed too. And they stayed to look after everything and to try to coordinate flood relief and once the water started going down to be able to clean up and get things back going again.
Ramsey Russell: And the water didn’t just come down quickly, did it?
Hank Burdine: No, it didn’t. It took a couple of months for it to get out of here.
Life After the Flood
Well, what happened after the 1927 flood?
Ramsey Russell: That event really influenced my grandfather’s life. I mean, he was always involved, I guess, in conversation anyway with the levee board and everything else. But some of the books I kept after he passed were like, had to do with the water and flood control, that became very centric to who he was as a lifelong native for the Delta.
Hank Burdine: Well, what happened after the 1927 flood? We had Senator Percy up in Washington and very respected gentleman up there. And they realize the southern states, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee and Missouri, Missouri mostly and North Tennessee had some flood problem, but not like the rest of them did. They presented to Congress that this is a situation that’s not a local problem, it’s not a Louisiana problem that it floods every year because of the fact that 41% of the continental United States comes down through there, of the water, so it is a national problem and because of the nationality of it, then the US Congress needs to get involved and let’s put this thing together. So from those efforts came the 1928 Flood Control Act and the Flood Control Act set in motion the Mississippi River and Tributaries Project, which would be charged with the task of designing a levee system of reservoirs and not only of taller, stronger levees, but of flood ways and explosive areas that you could get the water out of the river to protect certain towns. And you were to be able to design the harbors, the tributaries and harbors were part of it, navigation was part of it. So you had a comprehensive plan at this time that was put in the hands of the Corps of Engineers to implement it, but it was in charge of the Mississippi River Commission which had been formed in the 1800s to oversee things being done on the Mississippi River. Now, the Mississippi River Commission entails 5 members on the commission. You’ve got a private citizen who is not an engineer who used to be Sam Angel there in Lake Village, he was there longer than anyone. Then you had another one that was an engineer, then you had the Corp of Engineers guy on it and then you had a coast guard guy on it and you had a weather guy on it. So ladies and gentlemen, now we got some wonderful ladies on there now that are extremely smart and know so much what they’re doing, but they were in charge of implementing it. And that when you hear about the high water and low water inspection cruises, we have one as a matter of fact coming up this week, this will be the high water cruise. And the motor vessel Mississippi, this is I think either the 4th or the 5th one of those vessels, it actually is the largest tow boat in the world, but it’s not the most powerful one because what it’s designed to do is to be the flagship for the Mississippi River Commission. It has the meeting rooms on it, it has the state rooms where all the dignitaries and the Mississippi River Commission can stay on it, the cafeterias to feed all these people that get on it and it is charged during the rest of the year. We have a low water inspection crews in August when the water is at its lowest point and a high water in the spring time, the rest of the year it supports the mat unit of the Corp of Engineers. It pushes those barges up and down the river that are loaded with the mats. So pardon my friends, but it’s one hell of a boat I’ve been on it a bunch of times and I am just most honored in my position as a Mississippi Levee board commissioner. I’m most honored and most proud to be on it. And the first boat into New Orleans when Katrina hit was the motor vessel Mississippi because it was a command post for everything that went on in New Orleans during that hurricane.
Ramsey Russell: What do you know about the history of Greenville preceding the Levee break? Like, that book Rising Tide somewhere in there was saying that preceding that because of cotton, because of the economy, because of what it was and where it was that, it was almost like the southern capital, it was like where all the society and all the balls and all the big stuff happened and after the flood because it took years to get back on its feet that all kind of transferred down to New Orleans.
Hank Burdine: Well, New Orleans was always New Orleans and it always, but Greenville was historically known as the Queen City of the Delta. And what you had, you had aristocratic folks that came in from Kentucky, came in from South Carolina, came in from different areas, bought up land, if you look at Lake Washington itself, south of Lake Washington is Carolina Chute your folks from Natchez which at one point in time was the richest per capita city in the United States because of cotton and those were the small cotton plantation down there that built the homes and all like that, that was before they got up into the Mississippi Delta and started clearing this. But as they were coming into here, the South Carolinians had come up from Natchez and were introduced into this Lake Washington area. The northern part of Lake Washington was being cleared and being inhabited by Kentuckians that came down river, turned at Kentucky Bar and went into Union Bayou and got into the north end of Lake Washington. Now, Lake Washington was one of the first areas to be cleared and farmed in the Mississippi Delta. And there was a gentleman named Captain Henry Johnson that was coming down to Natchez and met some Indians that told him about this beautiful lake to the west of there and he went over there with him, then he came back with some provisions and got those same men, they took him over there from Natchez and brought him to that lake and he met, I’m quoting this a “Disreputable fellow named Bunch” who was a river pirate and his Bunch is banned right out on that river to this day and Bunch is cut off is there. But from this disreputable fellow named a Bunch, this is before Mississippi was a state, he bought the Tommy Hawk, Indian Rights to 3000 acres of fine cotton ground and he paid $50 and a Keg of Kentucky whiskey for that 3000 acres. And he named that place Chatham after the freedom loving part of Lord Chatham in England. So that’s where Chatham Mississippi came from. Pretty interesting stories on all that kind of stuff. If folks that are listening, you want to hear some more of it, get my book “Dust in the Road: Recollections of a Delta Boy” because that’s one of the very first stories in it.
Ramsey Russell: It sure is. And I read something else that, there was so much politics going on around –
Hank Burdine: Wait, let’s back up, we didn’t finish what we talked about, because we can get into politics in. But because of the Kentuckians and the South Carolinians that came in here, these were aristocratic families. They had big mansions up in Kentucky, big mansions up in Virginia, South Carolina and North Carolina and they saw an opportunity to come in here and buy land, have it cleared whether it be by slave labor or after the civil war by sharecropping labor. And then even beyond that, when you had the penal system, where you would lease prisoners, which is not a good thing that was happening at all back then to clear this land. So when they would come down and build their big houses, they wouldn’t stay down there all the time because in the summer time, that’s when the mosquitoes and the malaria is out, they go back to Kentucky, they go up to Swan Island, they’d go to Mount Eagle, they’d go back up into South Carolina to get away from the mosquitoes and all. But in their libraries, they had stacks and stacks of Shakespeare, of all these books that the libraries were full of interesting books from all over the world and they would bring the artwork in and all like that. So you had a very aristocratic part of this Mississippi Delta in Greenville seemed to be the hub of it because it was on the Mississippi River where the majority of the cotton from all around there came to Greenville to be put on the steam boat going up and down the Mississippi River.
Ramsey Russell: A lot of high ground, a lot of cotton ground right there in Washington County too.
Hank Burdine: It is. But Greenwood was known as the cotton capital of the world because of all the cotton that went out through Greenwood onto the Yazoo River and down through Vicksburg and out like
Ramsey Russell: Right down here, right down through the property.
Hank Burdine: So you had at one point in time in Greenville, more writers per capita than anywhere else in the United States. Your Shelby Foote, your Walker Percy, your William Alexander Percy, now by Beverly, you had Julia Reed from down there, you have some in Greenville, you had Bern Keating, Hodding Carter all these folks that called Greenville Home. And it had opera houses, it was well known for the different shows that would come into town, not only on the steamboats, but would get off of the steamboat and put on a show in the opera house and all like this. So, very well-known for that.
Ramsey Russell: Very well-known. Now, politics?
Hank Burdine: I ain’t getting into politics, you may know more about that than I do.
Ramsey Russell: I don’t know, I was going to pick your brain and see what you do because what I read and understood was Republicans and Democrats were two totally different critters in them because of this flood, the parties almost swapped.
Hank Burdine: Well, the parties ended up kind of did swap in the early 50s, that’s when the National Democratic Party and the Republican Party became a prominent part of not only the Mississippi Delta, but of Mississippi. And that was the beginning back when Fannie Lou Hamer went and the Democratic Party actually split and formed, what we see is the Democratic Party now had its roots back then. But as far as power politics, when you look at the Percy family and dear friends of mine and many books are written about the Percy’s of Mississippi, the literary Percy’s and the power that the Percy’s wielded back in those days. Senator LeRoy Percy it was well-known all over America, he was the attorney for the IC railroad. He was a United States senator for one term. He actually kept the Ku Klux Klan out of the Greenville area and all this transpired because he realized that the Ku Klux Klan was not a good organization that imposed fear in a lot of people and all like that. And he didn’t want them in here because he’d run his folks off and worked on his place. And this is back during the share cropping days, when a lot of people don’t understand what that really is and how it functioned by having not only black families but white families, Italian families living on a farm that worked for a share of the crop that they produced on that 27 to 30 acres of ground that they farmed. They would get all their implements, all their seed, they would have a mule supplied, what they had to do is supply the labor, they gave them a house and they gave them credit at the company store, so they could run their bills at the company store for all they needed to eat and the clothing and everything like that. And then at settlement time, at the end of the year, when they picked the cotton, then however much cotton was raised when that factored into the dollar, the price of cotton at the time then his son, Thomas would say the boss man would keep his share and then whatever was left over after you paid everything else off, the sharecropping family was able to keep that. Sometimes they make $400, $500 in cash, but they had everything supplied their food, their house and everything else. So some years it was lean some years, it wasn’t that bad. So, it was a system that was rife with the possibility of it being mistreated, the accountant for the plantation, if he would one fell of his pin majority of the sharecroppers couldn’t read and write, they couldn’t keep up with everything like that. He just decided that what it was going to be. But I would like to think that the majority of the plantations were true and good, which was certainly the case with the Percy family under and many more like them. But from the power and the contacts and the people that they knew that was where the power politics came to play in Arkansas and Mississippi and Louisiana as you read in Rising Tide when they were developing these levee systems and such as that, they could either pick up the phone or get on a train, go to Washington in the man’s office up and say it is the way it needed to be and lots of times that’s the way it came down.
Lessons Learned From the Flood of 1927
Including improved flood control measures, disaster response protocols, and the importance of community resilience.
Ramsey Russell: How did levee policy and levee politics change after this flood because it’s a whole different world we live in now?
Hank Burdine: It totally is. And it changed because of the Congress getting involved in it, creating the Flood Control Act which created the Mississippi River and Tributary project, which designed a project flood, which was the big mama of all floods and that system is about 85% complete. Now, that system entailed a series of huge reservoirs all up in the Ohio Basin. If you look in Mississippi alone, our reservoirs in Arkabutla, Sawdust and Grenada Lake, all the flood control reservoir that was designed in the MRT project. They’re not duck hunting and fishing reservoirs, they’re designed for flood control, now you got the other as a side bar to it. But in those reservoirs and in the big massive reservoirs up north of here that would hold water and try to release water during low water times to create a holding capacity when the floods did come, that was part of the project. Also, they did the Bird Point Levee which is north of Cairo, which is designed with big canisters in the levee that when water elevation reaches a certain level and a certain stage and everything that levee is dynamited. And there’s a flood way that brings the water around the floodway bought by the United States government brings the water around and that protects Cairo, Illinois. And you come on further South, then there was going to be the Cypress Bend floodway, which is right across an up river from Greenville. That flood way was going to be opened up to allow excess river water to go through there into the Beouf River and get into the Red River and the Atchafalaya and go on down that way to save the South Delta. But there were a lot of the Arkansas folks said, damn if that was going to happen, they weren’t going to flood their land out and they had enough power to be able to say, we’re not going to let that and they started building their own, they had levee built before they ever said, well, you all going to do that, we’re going to change it. So the changeover was to build the levee systems along the Mississippi River in the Mississippi Delta, create the Yazoo backwater levee with the two gates we have now and the pumps because once you create that levee, you create a bowl and as the Mississippi river comes up, it would back into the South Delta and flood half the delta where they would close the gates to keep the Mississippi River out. But if it rained in the delta, that water had nowhere to go and it would pool up in the South Delta pumps were to kick on and pump that out. There are 23 backwater areas and backwater pumping plants authorized by the federal government, only 22 of them have been built or 22 have been built with the pumps installed, the only one that doesn’t have its pumps is the south.
Ramsey Russell: Well, it’s a big issue down here. I mean, the whole saw the flood just a few years ago.
Hank Burdine: 2019, we had over 600,000 something acres underwater for 6 months and we’re not going to get in, now that’s a whole another time, we can talk about all that. But the power politics that you we were talking about, that’s what caused the cypress area, cypress bend to have its levee and no flood way. The South Delta was going to be protected with its pumps. Then you go down a little further downstream and you’ve got what we call the old river control structure that is where the Atchafalaya River, the Red River, Beouf, all that comes in there and creates into the Atchafalaya Basin. In 1953 they realized that if something didn’t happen, the Atchafalaya was going to capture the Mississippi River, which historically, that’s what a river does. It just fades itself out into Birds foot delta which is south of New Orleans, but as it decides it wants to change to a shorter route to the ocean, it so does that. And back in the 50s, it was realized that if something didn’t happen and happened soon, the Atchafalaya was going to capture the Mississippi River, had it done that New Orleans would have dried up Baton Rouge, all the petrol chemical industry and all like that. The river would have dried up, it would have silted in, you wouldn’t have had access back to the Gulf of Mexico. The fresh water systems would have been destroyed. There’s already a saltwater wedge coming up the Mississippi River on the bottom of the river right now. And so they decided to build the old river control structure which relegated the Mississippi River to carry 70% of its volume and 30% of that went down to Atchafalaya, that’s what it was in the 50s when they made the split and they built this structure and they put a lock and dam in to allow boats to get in and out of the Atchafalaya and still maintain the 30% going down to Atchafalaya 2019 and 1973 we had a big flood and the old river structure failed. We didn’t lose it, we lost this whole South wing wall, they hadn’t found it yet. And so the structure almost failed, I mean, it did fail, but we didn’t collapse and lose it. And from that experiment experience, they built an auxiliary structure to take the pressure off the old river structure to help maintain that 30% split. Now, we’ve got a hydroelectric dam in there too, so that system is working real good. It takes 30% of the water out of the Mississippi River, right below that and is part of that system is the Morganza Spillway, which when the river gets up to a certain height to help protect Baton Rouge, they open up that Morganza Spillway and that water goes over and over the flood way into Atchafalaya that help protect Baton Rouge. Now, we still got New Orleans to be concerned with, so they built the Bonnet Carre Spillway there that at a certain elevation, those gates are pulled and massive amounts of water comes out of the Mississippi River into Lake Pontchartrain and on out to Rigolets and into the Gulf of Mexico or the Mississippi Sound and that protects New Orleans. So those are the different. I don’t like to say we control the river because I don’t think we can control the river, I like to say we work with the river and let the river go where it has historically wanted to go during flood times. Keep those levees, let’s keep as much of it protected as we can, but open up these other areas to where let that water go where it wants to go. And in 2011, we had the largest flood of our recorded history, we carried 26% more water in the Mississippi River than we did in 1927. We didn’t lose one acre of ground to the water that wasn’t supposed to flood nor did we lose one life and broke height elevation records at every gauge up and down the Mississippi River except Greenville and the reason it didn’t in Greenville is they went in there in the 30s and took out the Greenville bends, which was a series of bends in the Mississippi River which because of the water friction created the crevasse at Mound Landing, which was at the top of the river of the bends. So by taking those bends out, it created Lake Ferguson and it also took out 35 something miles out of the river. So that water comes through there a lot quicker and it doesn’t pool up, so that’s why we didn’t break a record in 2011. But that proved that the system works.
Ramsey Russell: The demands – I was talking to a biologist over at Ducks Unlimited Mr. Ed the other day and they’re still draining wetland between here and Colorado, here and Wyoming, like one of the furthest reaches headwater tributaries that ends up coming right down here by Mississippi and the Mississippi River is Leadville, Colorado where the South Platte River form.
Hank Burdine: I used to live up there. That’s the Arkansas River, that’s the headwaters of the Arkansas River.
Ramsey Russell: It’s more and more water. It’s like, some of these high water marks are becoming more frequent, 1927, 1973, now it’s 2011, 2019 whatever it is more because it’s increased demand as these wetlands are being drained it seems like that are coming on down this river.
Hank Burdine: A lot of people like to say, it’s climate change, it’s creating all that. But if you look at the continually building more Walmarts, you’re continually building more parking lots, you look at every field in the Mississippi Delta, if it hadn’t been leveled, it’s ready to be leveled. So your water is not staying, pooling up in these wetlands, it’s not staying in the field, it’s not staying in your buffer zones, it’s getting to these tributaries and framed a lot quicker and that’s creating so much more water at a quicker time, which I believe is what’s causing a lot of the flooding that we’re having now.
The levee boards are charged with maintenance of the levees of acquiring the right of ways for these levees when you go to build them and construct them and to work with the Corps of Engineers, but it’s up to the core to build them, to let the contracts and to get them built and all like that.
Ramsey Russell: So, the levee boards are continuing to evolve and adjust for this?
Hank Burdine: We have to. The levee boards are charged with maintenance of the levees of acquiring the right of ways for these levees when you go to build them and construct them and to work with the Corps of Engineers, but it’s up to the core to build them, to let the contracts and to get them built and all like that. And the levee boards maintain the roads on top. So we can make sure that we can inspect the levees when we need to. And the maintenance on the levees itself is being done by what we call our levee maintenance contractors. These are farmers, the people that own the land adjacent to the levee, they have the first right of refusal to maintain that levee either by running cows and horses of it to keep the grass clipped down or to make hay on it and we supply the chemicals, the herbicides and the fertilizers and all that to keep this grass growing. We like to have coastal Bermuda on there because of the root system holds the dirt in so tight that, that’s what we want out there. We want all your noxious weeds, your cockleburr, yours all this stuff away from there, but just that coastal Bermuda. So our farmers play a major part of that.
Ramsey Russell: A lot of the levee system we’ve got right now intact originated pursuant to the flood of 1927, that’s what drove it all. Last question I got for you, Hank and where that levee broke, there’s a club called –
Hank Burdine: 27 Break.
Ramsey Russell: 27 Break. And I walked on that property 20 years ago as a forester for Fish & Wildlife service and there were parts of that property, unlike anything else in the state of Mississippi, except maybe the Gulf coast, it was where all that sand got to deposit. I mean, at times I was walking around going, this is like South Texas, it’s just a very unique, but it’s a very productive area now. I mean, the land will heal itself and –
Hank Burdine: It does to a degree. If you look at the majority of the 27 break hunting club over there between the levee and the river and highway one used to be a cattle operation because it was too sandy to grow a crop, but you could grow grass on it. That’s why they got those huge silos there and I remember the thousands of cows they used to have out there. Those sandy areas now have been planted in CRPWRP, got trees growing on them. I was hog hunting up there a couple of years ago and you go by what’s called the old blue hole. Well, whenever you have a crevasse in the levee and that water comes through there, it creates a huge scoured out hole, which is called a blue hole. Now, is the blue hole named the blue hole because that’s where the levee’s blue? Or was the water so clear and it’s so deep, lots of times it’s 100ft deep, which we don’t normally have stuff like that in the Mississippi Delta because of the scoring and the water turns blue because of the depth of the water, I don’t know, I got to go ask somebody else about that, but that old blue hole is still out there.
Ramsey Russell: Hank, tell everybody real quick about your book. Tell us how we get in touch with your book? Because it’s a great book that everybody needs to read.
Hank Burdine: Get in touch with Coopwood publishing in Cleveland, Mississippi 662-843-2700. Name of the book is, Dust in the Road: Recollections of a Delta Boy and everything we’ve talked about today is written in one of those articles in there and it’s a compilation of about 70 articles I’ve written in Delta magazine over the last years from 2003 on, talks about the literary history of the blues and the places they eat, the early crops, the bear hunting, the Teddy Roosevelt and Holt Collier’s, your early farms, your early plantations, your clearing of the Delta, when Memphis became known as the hardwood capital of the world because of the hardwood that came out of the Mississippi Delta. Once the levees were being built and once the railroads were nudging in here, then they could haul those logs to Memphis and that was the hardwood capital of the world. Then you had Anderson Tully come down here from Chicago and the company built their mills here in Vicksburg. And so there’s a lot of good stories in there about what we’re talking about right here in that book. Dust in the Road: Recollections of a Delta Boy.
Ramsey Russell: Folks, you all been listening to my buddy Hank Burdine, thank you all for listening to this episode of Duck Season Somewhere, we’ll see you next time.