When it comes to just normal everyday living, I can't think of anything more horrific than to have your house under 10 to 20 feet of water. Sadly, this is what happened to thousands of our fellow citizens back in 1927 when we had one of the worst floods in the history of our nation. This became known as the Great Flood of 1927 and the Mississippi River Flood of 1927.
Due to the terrain and location, it affected our state of Arkansas with a greater amount of devastation, both human and monetary, than the other affected states in the Mississippi River Valley. It had social and political ramifications that changed the way Arkansas, as well as the nation, viewed relief from natural disasters and the responsibility of government in aiding the victims, echoing the Hurricane Katrina disaster in the present day.
As I write this, as a nation we are in the midst of planning and dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. We are still early in the pandemic and are not sure, at this point, what the short- or long-term effects will be. As you know, I write this column well in advance of publication and don't have the luxury of others in the media. However, the 1927 flood is history, and learning more about it can serve a useful purpose. First, it can remind all of us that we are not the first to suffer on a massive scale, and the poor people back in those days did not have the science, technology, and the power of our massive federal government to come to their rescue.
In largely agrarian Arkansas, the flood of 1927 covered about 6,000 square miles, with 36 of 75 Arkansas counties underwater up to 30 feet deep in places. Here in our state, more people were affected by the floodwaters (over 350,000), more farmland inundated (over two million acres), more Red Cross camps were needed (80 of the 154 total), and more families received relief than any other state (41,243). In Arkansas, almost 100 people died, more than any other state except Mississippi.
This huge flood had its origins in both nature and in man. In the late 1920s, technological advances kept pace with the growing economy. 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 made fertile by centuries of seasonal flooding.
Here in Arkansas we got the brunt of it, but we were not the only ones affected as this flood also devastated the states of Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma and Tennessee. They had no choice but to share in the misery. When my friend Joe Heird talked about this great flood sometime back at our weekly prayer breakfast, here is the one thing that stuck in my mind because I could see it so very vividly. He told us that in some places the Mississippi River was 60 miles wide. Now you think about that: 60 miles is a far piece, as today you would have to get in a car and drive at the speed limit for over an hour to find dry land.
When I was a kid growing up, we lived in an area in south Arkansas that was underwater in 1927, and some people say I have been all-wet ever since. Ha.