(As published in the June 1927 edition of Woman’s Press)
By Lucy Somerville
One of the trying features of a disaster to the unwilling participants is the isolation of the victims, a catastrophe as a whole cannot be pictured by one who is struggling to exist in the midst of it and so, as I write of the Mississippi Flood of this year of Grace, 1927, I can only tell a small part of what I have seen and I am sadly aware that this once beautiful city of Greenville and Delta section of Mississippi have not suffered more, or perhaps as much as have Arkansas and Louisiana, and that the roll of victims begins with Illinois and sweeps on over every intervening state to the Gulf.
For about an[sic] hundred years now my family, and that of many of the people here in Washington County, have lived and made their homes
on the great Mississippi, we respected the River[sic], but somehow we never feared it. Individuals, before the Civil War, built small levees around their properties, later a levee district was organized and taxes assessed for the purpose of building a public levee and in the recollection of my mother, the levees have grown from a small ridge turned up by a plow to the present massive heap of dirt twelve to twenty feet high extending almost the entire front of the low lands on the Mississippi. In recent years the Federal Government has contributed to the levee fund, but the levees are still largely a matter of local enterprise, and the Mississippi before it reaches the Gulf drains thirty six states.
Greenville had not been under water since 1903, and then only partially. [T]here was a low ‘protection levee’ north of town and the east and south were protected, or so most people believed, by railroad embankment, so the people as a whole were confidant the town would not get any water even should the levee break, and for weeks the river rose, it passed the highest stage ever known before, 52.3/10 feet reached in 1922, and went steadily up, a foot a day and that, as well as the height, was unprecedented.
On Wednesday April 20th , I went to the levee three times. Each time I could notice the rise. Each time the water looked muddier, swifter and more threatening and for myself I gave up hope and knew the levee was sure to break somewhere and do it soon. The next morning, April 21st, I was in a lumber office buying material for a boat when the fire siren blew, the levee had broken at seven forty-five that morning eighteen miles north of town.
A drizzling rain was falling. All labor and trucks were rushed to the ‘protection’ levee to close the gaps at the roads with dirt-filled sacks, cars dashed about heedless of traffic regulations. But still the people as a whole believed the water would not come into Greenville. I knew my home was outside the protection zone and would have water in the yard, if not in the house, and I feared the whole town would go under, so I spent the day getting supplies, having my boat built, getting my car up on the front gallery, and doing everything I could think of to protect us from the onslaught of an element gone wild. During he day the fear spread that the levee would break nearer town. Special trains were run and hundreds left for the ‘hills.’ And the people began to break under the strain and become panicky, and that had never happened before.
About nine o’clock that night a cousin phoned us: “The water is over the counter in Payne’s store at Winterville.” That, translated, meant the water was coming in greater volume and swifter than anyone had expected. We had figured on four feet of water but decided we had better prepare for eight feet and began putting up furniture and packing everything that could be packed. We performed miracles of strength and speed in what is generally the dead of the night, but the houses on our street were as gaily lighted as the Rue de la Paix after the opera.
At eleven p. m. the siren blew again and the people just went crazy. The signal was a call for help in reality and meant the water was sweeping over and through the ‘protection’ levee, but word got around that the main levee had broken at Miller’s Bend just north of town. Thousands ran to the levee. White and black, young and old, some with a bundle of clothing, some barely dressed themselves. The wind was blowing a terrific gale and the waves beating against the side of the levee added to the terror of the scene. A barge was crowded with people and left in the early morning hours for Vicksburg. About eight hundred took refuge in the Courthouse, all offices and second story rooms were soon filled with refugees coming in from the country, just ahead of the water, with stories of the great rush of water and swiftness of the current and here again all precedents were broken; always heretofore, except near the crevasse, the water had spread gradually and with relatively little current. By morning the northern part of town was under several feet of water.
So long as I may live, I know I can never forget my first sight of the water in town. We were proud of the smooth green lawns, the gay flowers and dark green shrubs …
I was thinking of that beauty as I went out to the street by the side of our home at five twenty on the morning of the 22nd. The sun was rising in the east and as I glanced from the sky to the ground, I saw a glittering, slimy mass wriggling along the street like some horrid, merciless serpent stifling the breath from the body of its victim. Like every other person who watched the water come towards her home that day, I felt like weeping, and again as the water has receded and its ruin and devastation become more evident, I feel the same way. As the water drew nearer it ceased to glitter, it was horrid, dirty water filled with bugs and crayfish and snakes and eels. The thought of that messy water coming into one’s home was just too much to endure, and yet, there was not a thing on earth anyone could do except watch it come, to the street, to the walk, to the house, then up, up, steadily and inexorably up for a week. The water did not get into my own house, I am eternally grateful to be able to say. But it did get into at least 80% of the houses in town and practically every business building.
The town water went off, we had anticipated that and had a small supply, but even so we learned what thirst was and cooking without water is quite an art. The gas went off, the lights stayed on, the telephone was fickle, but the telephone people gave noble service and kept one line open to the outside world all the way through. After two or three days the water came back on and stayed on.
At first an effort was made to have everyone leave town, but some of us contended that would never do and what seemed to me the wiser policy prevailed. A refugee camp was established on the levee, those who were sick or wanted to leave, left, the rest of us stayed and cared for the refugees and held the town together. The local paper, THE DEMOCRAT-TIMES, never missed an issue, though the staff had to wade around in water and set type by hand. The banks were only closed two days, elevated walks being built in and to them, and somehow things were kept going, though the difficulty of doing business with two or [more] feet of water in the building can not be described.
The first three days I spent getting everything ship shape for a long siege and learning to paddle my boat. The fourth day, and every day for five weeks, I went to town, as did everyone else who could, to help with the relief work. We would leave at six thirty in the morning and return at seven that night. The voyage to town was at times perilous and always clumsy. When we reached the railroad crossing everyone would climb out of the boat and wade, the water being too shallow to float the boat. At several street intersections the current was so swift that detours to back of houses had to be made and the probability of getting caught on a picket fence or floating chicken coop added a touch of adventure to the trip. As the water fell we changed from a boat to a wagon, in our case the dog catcher’s wagon of the Police Department and fleas and water in the bed of the wagon at places enlivened the trip. Later the happy plan of jacking up the engine of a Ford a foot or two was hit upon and we went loftily along the paved streets, an occasional jolt where the current had torn out the concrete disturbed us not at all.
The refugee camp on the levee, at first a miserable and distressing mass of humanity, in a remarkably short time became neat, orderly and rather happy on the whole. Tents were secured, sacks had been the only covering the first few nights. Lawyers, ministers, bankers, business men of every class and kind, with negro refugees and the national guard, pitched and floored tents, built bunks and kitchens, cooked and slaved as do soldiers in a war, and many are still working, for there are 5000 in the camp now and more to come as camps elsewhere are closed.
The Red Cross came promptly, it was already functioning in Arkansas, and has fed and clothed the refugees and many of the people who stayed in churches, attics, stores, anywhere they could perch above the water. The camp extends for about six miles along the sloping side of the levee, there are six kitchens, a milk depot, three first- aid stations, and emergency hospital for the negroes and one for white people (the local hospitals kept open the entire time). Tents have been numbered, the refugees all registered, some of the Greenville Girl Reserves helped in the registration of the refugees, as they have helped in many ways. As the emergency period has passed we have settled down to a long siege, a tent has been set aside for a school for the white children and one for the negroes, and two tents for sewing, with an instructor and several sewing machines so that the refugees can repair and remodel clothes given them. Typhoid ‘shots’ have been given all the refugees and most of the people in the flooded territory and every precaution is being taken, and so far, successfully, against disease. Negro preachers in the camp hold services occasionally. Noah and the flood are favorite subjects for the sermons and the sound of the spirituals across the water adds pathos and picturesqueness to an other wise drab scene.
Girl Reserves have worked faithfully at one of the most wearing jobs, that of distributing clothing. The clothing is in what is called the ‘Sack house,’ a large warehouse at the foot of the levee half filed with sacks. Refugees were there the first few days and then it was used by the negroes for ‘preachin,’ and later turned into what the negroes called the ‘rag house.’ It is hot and stuffy and all day long the girls and the workers stay in there, trying to satisfy each refugee and her long list of family requirements, and the line of negroes outside, each clutching what she calls a ‘script’ officially known as a ‘clothing requisition.’ Never seems to grow any shorter.
The misery and wreckage, the devastation and ruin caused by this waste of vagrant flood waters is heartrending and I can not somehow bring myself to really write of it. Probably because, like everyone else who stayed here, I have been fighting for seven weeks to keep from thinking of it. We can not think long of all that we see if things are to be kept going, and things must be kept going or the little that is left will also be lost.
Twenty percent of the land in this country may be cultivated this year, that means that eighty per cent of the land owners and tenant farmers will have no work, no income, yet they and their families must live, taxes must be paid, the mortgage payment met. The public schools have been damaged at least $40,000.00. Nearly every bridge in the country has been swept away. Miles of concrete road have been torn up and wrecked. And the personal property loss is staggering. Houses have been swept away and the savings of a lifetime. All flowers and shrubs, dead, chickens, turkey, livestock, swept away and drowned in the water. One of the saddest things I have heard was the lowing and mournful baying of the livestock as they drowned the first few nights of the flood. . . .the list of losses is interminable. Just think of thousand of things that go to make up your daily living and know that they are destroyed or injured. We haven’t had a train into Greenville since April 21st. Half the town is still under water and no one can yet see the end.
Occasionally something of a lighter sort happens. A Girl Reserve who lives near town on her father’s plantation told me this incident. Their plantation was generally regarded as high ground and had never suffered badly from an overflow. There was one old negro living on the place in a cabin high on the banks of Deer Creek; he refused to leave his cabin and to go to the main residence. The water had never been in his cabin and it never would. One morning he looked up and saw the water rolling towards him, terrified, he climbed to the roof and clung to the ridge of the roof, looking across the field he could see the other cabins submerged to the eaves and he shrieked and called for help. Rescuers saw what he did not: that the water was only a foot deep at his cabin and passed on by to rescue people who were in actual and not imagined danger. Not until he had clung there two days did anyone have time to stop and take the old man down.
Most pathetic of all I think are the old negroes, they have lost all in this world they possess, they haven’t the strength or heart to begin again at the bottom, most of them have been very proud of their few possessions, life now holds nothing more for them. They are doing their best to be appreciative of what is being done for them, but they feel the end is near and they will have nothing to leave behind.
As I said in the beginning, I can only tell a small part of what happened since that fateful April 21st and I just as well stop now, but I want to say one word of appreciation for the generosity and sympathy of the people of the country, and there again this flood is unprecedented, never before have we asked for help, but it has been so graciously given that our pride has not been hurt in receiving and distributing the gifts among those of our friends and neighbors and servants who have lost their possessions, their homes, and in some instances have lost the lives of those dear to them.
In the past we have called those visitations of water ‘overflows.’ This one we call a ‘flood.’ In the past an overflow was not unmitigated evil, it left a fertile deposit on the land, the water receded in time for a bumper crop to be made, the water was calm and the people had lots of fun paddling about, inconvenient but no terror, or lives lost. But this time, a great mountain of water swept down upon us in a roaring raging torrent carrying death and destruction with it. Unless we can feel protected against such a thing happening again we shall begin to fear the river and life on the banks of the great Mississippi will become a misery indeed.
And as I have written of the flood on this June 7th, the river is again rising and we know the water is coming back. For weeks hundreds of men have been working night and day to close the [gaps in the protection levee].
The article was recreated verbatim for Mississippi History Now by Princella W. Nowell except for added punctuation. A copy of the original article resides with The Lucy Somerville Howorth Collection, Delta State University Archives, Cleveland, Mississippi. Used by permission of Delta State University.
Editor’s Note: Lucy Somerville Howorth (1895-1997), daughter of noted suffragist and politician Nellie Nugent Somerville, was a lawyer, judge, politician, and feminist.