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And the rain descended, and the flood came, and the wind blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell, and great was the fall of it. -- Matthew 7:27

Author John M. Barry uses the above Bible verse at the start of Rising Tide, his classic 1997 account of the Great Flood of 1927.

I'm crossing the Mississippi River on the magnificent bridge that connects Greenville, Miss., to Lake Village and thinking about Rising Tide, perhaps my favorite work of nonfiction. One of the leading characters in Barry's book is LeRoy Percy, who headed a Greenville family that was royalty in the Delta in those days.

"No man mattered more in the Mississippi Delta, or perhaps anywhere the length of the river, than he," Barry writes. "Sixty-seven years old, still imperious, thick-chested and vital, with measuring eyes, a fin-de-siecle mustache, silver hair and frock coat, he seemed a figure from an earlier age. If so, he had been a ruler of that age, and in the Mississippi Delta he ruled even now. Not only a planter and lawyer but a former U.S. senator, an intimate of Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, and a director of railroads, the Carnegie and Rockefeller foundations, and a Federal Reserve bank, Percy's political and financial connections extended beyond Washington and New York to London and Paris. Only his closest friends addressed him by his first name."

Barry's book makes the point that what occurred in 1927 was much more than a flood. It was an event that changed a society.

"LeRoy Percy did not know the immensity of the flood bearing down upon him, but he knew that it was great," Barry writes. "His family had fought the river for nearly a century, as they had fought everything that blocked their transforming the domain of the river into an empire, an empire that had allowed its rulers to go in a single generation from hunting panther in the cane jungle at the edge of their plantations to traveling to Europe for opera festivals. The Percys had fought Reconstruction, fought yellow fever, fought to build the levees, all to create that empire. Only five years earlier, to preserve it, LeRoy had fought the Ku Klux Klan as well. He had triumphed over all these enemies.

"Now the river threatened those triumphs, threatened the society his family had created. Percy was determined that even if the river burst the levees, that society would survive. He had power, and he would do whatever was required to preserve it. Four hundred miles downriver from Greenville, the Mississippi flowed past New Orleans. There, a handful of men were Percy's peers, hunting and investing and playing poker with him, and belonging to the same clubs. Some were men of the Old South, controlling hundreds of thousands of acres of timber or sugar cane or cotton. Some were men of the New South, financiers and entrepreneurs. Some, like Percy, bridged those worlds. For decades they had controlled New Orleans and the entire state of Louisiana. The river threatened their society too. And like Percy, they would do whatever was required to preserve it."

Though Barry devotes much of his book to Mississippi and Louisiana, Arkansas was the state that suffered the most in 1927. Arkansas had almost twice as much farmland flooded as Mississippi and Louisiana combined. As historic as this year's Arkansas River flood is, the fact remains that it was confined to one basin since it was caused by rains in Kansas and Oklahoma. In 1927, all the rivers in the state flooded. Some remained above flood stage for months.

The Great Flood of 1927, the onset of the Great Depression in 1929, the Great Drought of 1930-31 and finally the Great Flood of 1937 caused people to begin leaving the state in droves. The Great Migration of African American residents who were escaping the evils of segregation, combined with rapid mechanization of agriculture that led to thousands of sharecroppers and tenant farmers losing their jobs, meant that Arkansas lost a higher percentage of its population from 1940-60 than any state.

In 1952, Arkansas had seven members of the U.S. House of Representatives. By 1963, it was down to four (where it remains to this day) due to population loss.

It was during the 1927-60 period that the population base (and power base) of the state began its shift from east to west. It's a trend that has sped up in recent years. The Delta's population dwindles while northwest and central Arkansas prosper. This year's flood is not an event that will cause thousands of people to leave Arkansas.

One simply can't understand Arkansas history without understanding the effects of the floods of 1927 and 1937.

The 1927 flood covered 6,600 square miles, with 36 of the state's 75 counties having large tracts under water. More than 350,000 Arkansas residents were affected. Of the 154 camps set up across the country by the Red Cross, 80 were in Arkansas. More than 41,000 families received relief, about 100 people died, and the monetary losses were worse than in any other state.

"In the late 1920s, technological advances kept pace with the growing economy," Arkansas historian Nancy Hendricks writes. "Heavy machinery enabled the construction of a vast system of levees to hold back rivers that tended to overrun their banks. Drainage projects opened up new low-lying lands that had once been forests but had been left bare by the timber industry. Feeling protected from flooding by the levees, farmers borrowed money with easy credit from banks booming with the record levels of the stock market. They expanded their fields to low-lying areas on their own property or moved to new lands that were fertile from centuries of seasonal flooding. They felt secure in selling their crops to new markets, now accessible by railroads, trucks, automobiles and even international shipping.

"The buy-now, pay-later mindset of the 1920s encouraged people, including farmers of modest means, to purchase washing machines and other labor-saving devices on installment plans. Even nature seemed to be cooperating as the summer of 1926 brought rain instead of drought. The spring of 1927, however, saw warm weather and early snow melts in Canada, causing the upper Mississippi to swell. Rain fell in the upper Midwest, sending its full rivers gushing into the already swollen Mississippi."

Add to all of that record rainfall in Arkansas that April. A decade later, a rainy January caused a dozen rivers across the state to flood. Following a decade of floods, droughts and economic depression, Arkansas would never be the same.

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Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Editorial on 06/16/2019

Print Headline: REX NELSON: After the flood

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