By: Sid Salter
In what would be his final studio album, the inimitable Mississippi blues legend B.B. King in 2008 covered the 1927 Bessie Smith classic “Backwater Blues” in a style that made the heartbreaking tune all his own: “I climbed up on the high lonely hill, Oh, I climbed up on the high ole lonely hill; And I looked down at the house; Baby, where I used to live.”
While forever associated with the Great Flood of 1927, Smith actually wrote and recorded the song two months prior to the 1927 Mississippi River flood. Historians suggest that Smith may well have written the song about flooding of the Cumberland River in Nashville, Tennessee around the Christmas holidays in 1926.
But for thousands of Mississippians, no song old or new is sad enough to capture their current plight in the Great Flood of 2019 in the backwaters of the South Delta. Late in May at a Mississippi Emergency Management Agency press conference in Jackson and again last week at the Annual Meeting of the Delta Council, Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant – a Morehead native and son of the Delta who knows the historical extravagance of the comparison better than most – called the current flooding worse than the fabled 1927 flood.
Is that hyperbole or a sad recitation of the facts? As the descendant of a family devastated by the 1927 flood in the Humphreys County hamlet of Midnight, I grew up listening to my mother’s stories of her experiences as a five-year-old girl who was sent out of Midnight to higher ground on a refugee train. “Worse than the Flood of 1927” is for those survivors an almost unimaginable standard.
But it appears that Bryant’s disturbing assessment is correct. From the standpoint of economic impact on the state’s agricultural production, Mississippi State University agricultural economists say making scientific comparisons of the region’s economy in the late 1920s with today’s Delta economy is extremely difficult.
But there is no question that region has been inundated with floodwaters since February and even with favorable weather, the Yazoo backwaters aren’t likely to drain until well into July. Some 540,000 total acres have been impacted with more than 250,000 acres of cropland that should be in production now underwater and unplanted.
Homes, businesses, churches, public building are flooded, all representing human miseries. Some of Mississippi’s and the nation’s poorest people are victimized by the flooding, as it was in my mother’s day.
Rather than a profitable year, most impacted farmers are hoping and praying for a break-even year. Even if they are able to plant late crops, yields will be impacted. Combined with the impacts of tariffs and other geopolitical influences, this is an extremely tough year to be a farmer in the Mississippi Delta.
Are the 2019 floods in Mississippi worse than the Great Flood of 1927? Perhaps. Certainly, it appears that the 2019 flooding will be of longer duration. It’s almost like drawing comparisons between the 1969 Hurricane Camille and the 2005 Hurricane Katrina. Both monster storms were different in their birth and makeup, but they were alike in their devastation. Experts give Katrina the nod as the larger and therefore more damaging storm in terms of raw damage and economic impact.
The more frightening aspect of the 2019 flooding is that these occurrences are becoming more frequent.
The 1927 flood displaced 600,000 people, killed at least 500, and covered a million acres with 30 feet of water. In 1993, Mississippi River flooding covered 20 million across in nine states and produced $20 billion in losses. Entire towns disappeared and some never rebuilt. The Upper Mississippi saw historic flooding in 2011 and again in 2018 as well.
Scientists identify the cause of increasing major floods as global warming and changes in the patterns of the jet stream.
Regardless the cause, the “backwater blues” is a malady that is literally on the rise in Mississippi and one that threatens the quality of life for South Delta residents and the substantial part of the state’s farm economy that those residents produce.