At Epicenter of Past River Flood, A Town On Edge

GREENVILLE, Miss. -- There’s an old saying in this stretch of the South: "The people of the Delta fear God and the Mississippi River."

That phrase has an added significance in this river town of about 35,000 people. It was just north of Greenville that the river burst its seams in 1927, causing the largest levee break in the history of the Mississippi Valley and forever changing the fate of this Delta town.

With the peak of the Mississippi's surge less than two days away from Greenville, there's an uneasy edge to a town that deeply understands the natural forces at work on the other side of the levees.

"The river has been winning all throughout history," said H. Ben "Benjy" Nelken, a real estate agent and local history buff who presides over the Greenville History Museum, one of several around town with exhibits on the 1927 flood. “It’s just in the last 50 to 70 years that we’ve gotten it somewhat under control. … But you also know that that river can get pissed off.”

Over the past few days, Nelken has had more than his fair share of museum vistors peppering him with questions about whether their part of town flooded during the big one in 1927.

So far, Greenville and its surrounding areas have been largely spared from the flooding that is engulfing areas farther south, such as outlying parts of Vicksburg and communities along the Yazoo River. There, the sheer height and force of the Mississippi River is literally pushing smaller tributaries backwards, swallowing farmland and submerging rural neighborhoods.

Greenville's primary threat is from a wholesale failure of one of the main river levees, a scenario that the Army Corps of Engineers, local officials and most residents do not believe is possible.

But as the town faces the highest river levels in recorded history, no one can ignore the drama that is unfolding.

The high water levels have shuttered the town's river port, slowing transport of fertilizer and fuel to farmers and preventing shipments of some commodities, including wheat. Greenville’s three casinos, built on the river side of the levee because of state laws, are completely swamped. And hundreds of area homes not protected by the mainline river levee are flooded up to the roofline.

Flood watchers view two submerged casinos in Greenville, Miss.

Reminders of the high river are everywhere. Wild animals driven from their natural habitats along the river have been spotted around town in increasing numbers. A few nights ago a deer tried to get into the local hospital.

Residents have been buying mothballs in increasing numbers to prevent snakes from getting into their homes.

And for the past three days, a steady procession of residents has been climbing up and down the steps of the levee to catch sight of the spectacle.

"It's scary. I haven’t ever seen anything like this," said Dorothy Cosie, a lifelong resident of Greenville. She said she trusts in the strength of the levees, but added, "You can’t just depend on man. You can only depend on the Lord for something like this."

At an interdenominational religious service in the town's synagogue Friday night, the Jewish rabbi and Presbyterian pastor presiding over the service both touched on the river several times.

"I heard the Mississippi River referred to as ‘our dangerous neighbor,' " said Jonas Hayes, the Presbyterian minister. "Creation … the land and the rivers … can be dangerous. Just as it can be generous and bountiful.”

"Benjy" Nelken, who runs a local history museum, shows parts of town that were ceded to the river after 1927

Greenville remains among the top 10 most populous cities in the state. But before the flood of 1927, its star was rising among the fastest in the South.

Known as the "Queen City of the Delta," Greenville was the largest port on the river between Memphis and New Orleans. With cotton rising to chief prominence among the nation’s commodities, the planters along this section of the river became some of the most powerful businessmen in the nation.

The 1927 flood brought Greenville -- and its rise -- to an abrupt halt. After the levee break about 20 miles north of town, floodwaters inundated Greenville and a vast swath of the state stretching nearly 70 miles east.

The aftermath of the flood led to one of the more wrenching dramas of the post-Civil War South. Many of the African American sharecroppers were left homeless but forced to stay in tent cities and work on repairs to the levees.

Local planters, afraid of losing their labor force, refused to let thousands of African Americans evacuate on steamboats up the river. Author John Barry concluded in his history of the 1927 flood, "Rising Tide," the flood was a major catalyst for the African American migration from the South to northern cities like Chicago.

In the decades since the flood, Greenville has reworked its relationship with nature. The city has retreated from the river, ceding five blocks of the original downtown to the levee and the banks of the Mississippi.

Yet the memories live on. Lifelong resident Iris Stacker, whose relatives were among those who worked on the levee in the wake of the 1927 flood, said tales of the flood are handed down each generation like heirlooms.

People in town use 1927 as passwords and building access codes.

“It’s almost like 1776, or 9/11,” Stacker said. “That’s our 9/11. It pretty much changed our town forever.”