Along Miss. River, fear rises with water
Severe flooding may get worse in coming weeks
HICKMAN, Ky. — People along the lower Mississippi River and its tributaries packed up their belongings and emergency workers feverishly filled sandbags as high water pushed its way downstream yesterday in a disaster that could break flood records dating to the Depression.
From Illinois to Mississippi, thousands of people have already been forced from their homes, and anxiety is rising along with the water, even though it could be a week or two before some of the most severe flooding hits.
“I’ve never seen it this bad,’’ said 78-year-old Joe Harrison, who has lived in the same house in Hickman since he was 11 months old. Floodwaters from the Mississippi turned his house into an island — dry but surrounded by water. He has been using a boat to get to his car, parked on dry ground along a highway that runs by his house.
Up and down the Big Muddy River, farmers braced for a repeat of the desperate strategy employed earlier this week in Missouri, where Army engineers blew up a levee and sacrificed vast stretches of farmland to protect populated areas upstream.
The looming disaster is being compared to the great floods of 1927 and 1937.
Tom Salem, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Memphis, said flooding is extreme this year because the Ohio River and Tennessee River valleys have been drenched with rain in the past two weeks.
Tributaries that flow into the Mississippi are backing up, too, because the river itself is so high. And they account for some of the worst of the flooding so far.
“It’s been a massive amount of rain for a long period of time,’’ Salem said. “And we’re still getting snowmelt from Montana.’’
In some areas, yesterday was the first day without rain since April 25.
The great flood of the lower Mississippi River valley in 1927 was one of the worst natural disasters in US history. More than 23,000 square miles, roughly the size of West Virginia, were inundated; hundreds of thousands of people were displaced, and about 250 died. In the aftermath, authorities were criticized for helping rescue whites while leaving thousands of black farm workers stranded for days without food or drinking water.
Another flood in 1937 was also devastating, submerging 31,000 square miles from West Virginia to Louisiana.
Lifelong Hickman resident H.L. Williamson, 77, was a boy when he and his family fled to the highest point in town. He recalled little of the experience except that his brother would not eat black-eyed peas or grapefruit for years because that was all they had during the flood.
This time, Williamson packed up and left his home, which was still dry thanks to a hill just inches higher than the floodwaters. He took only a few belongings, including the Navy uniform he hopes to be buried in.