Those who live along the mighty Mississippi River are no strangers to spring floods. However, certain years stand out in the minds of those who watched barges nearly top the levee in the early 1970s.
A few may even still remember experiencing the worst the flood in the history of this country when the Mississippi River topped 55 feet on the Red River gauge in 1927. Levees burst sending untold millions of gallons of water in the center of the country.
No flooding and rainfall event in United States history tops the 1927 floods.
The problems began as early as 1926. In late 1926, heavy rains in the Missouri River Valley, to the tune of ten times the annual average, began the rise of flood waters on the Mississippi River. River gauges along the main tributaries of the Mississippi River, the Missouri and Ohio Rivers, reached all time high, and the rain continued to fall.
John Barry tells the story in his award-winning 1997 book Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood and How it Changed America).
“In the winter of 1926-27, the rains were so heavy that on the tributaries of the Mississippi, the water had overflowed the banks, causing floods to the west in Oklahoma and Kansas, to the east in Illinois and Kentucky,” Barry said in his book.
“On Good Friday, April 15, 1927, the Memphis Commercial Appeal warned: ‘The roaring Mississippi River, bank and levee full from St. Louis to New Orleans, is believed to be on its mightiest rampage...All along the Mississippi considerable fear is felt over the prospects for the greatest flood in history.”
On Good Friday morning in 1927, rain fell in all-time records in amount and intensity over hundreds of thousands of square miles in Missouri, Illinois, Arkansas, Mississippi, Texas and Louisiana. In 18 hours, New Orleans recorded its greatest ever rainfall total of 15 inches.
Barry reported residents along the river said of the rising water: “It was like facing an angry, dark ocean.”
Fissures in the levees called crevasses appeared in multiple areas and the water poured into areas where nearly one million people lived. Witnesses reported as much as 30 feet of water in areas, according to Barry. And at one place, the Mississippi River was nearly 100 miles wide and water covered 1.5 million acres, roughly 27,000 square miles, the combined size of Connecticut, New Hampshire, Vermont and Massachusetts.
The levee failed first near Dorano, Mo. Memphis and New Orleans were buried by the flood waters.
The largest breech occurred at Mounds Landing in north Mississippi.
Barry wrote of that breech: “Quickly the crevasse widened, until a wall of water three-quarters of a mile across and more than 100 feet high—later its depth was estimated at as much as 150 feet—raged into the Delta.... The water’s force gouged out a 100-foot deep channel half a mile wide for a mile inland.”
It was a volume of water “more than double a flooding Niagara Falls more than the entire upper Mississippi ever carried....”
News sources at the timed covered the event with the fervor seen during Hurricane Katrina.
“The swollen Mississippi, a mad alluvial monster, on its greatest flood rampage of history, beat mercilessly today against man-made barriers of the lower valley as the impounded waters tore their way to the sea, ever widening the path of death, destruction and desolation,” the Associated Press reported.“ Death, famine, pestilence and war between man and the elements rode the ever-increasing tide of the father of waters gulfward in the greatest flood in the history of the Mississippi Valley,”
Official records indicated 500 people died in the flood, but it is believed that the number was much greater.
Experts do not expect the catastrophic failure of levees seen in 1927, but cannot totally rule out the possibility, However, the opening of the Bonne Carre and Morganza Spillways should prevent large scale flooding into the Greater Baton Rouge and New Orleans areas.