The Great Flood of 2011

My grandfather, W.J. Caskey of Des Arc, often would talk about the Great Flood of 1927.

He also would talk about the 1937 flood, another memorable event of a life spent in east Arkansas.

When I was young, I sometimes thought to myself, “Pam-Pa is rambling again.”

He died in the hot summer of 1980 at age 96. How I wish I had recorded some of his stories. In retrospect, I realize he was a walking history book.

He founded the Caskey Hardware Store and Caskey Funeral Home. The building he built early in the 20th century still houses those businesses, now known as Garth Funeral Home and Garth True Value Hardware.

I’ve thought about him a lot these past few days with Des Arc in the news.

I thought about him this morning when I looked at the color photo atop page 6A of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. It showed the brown water of the White River almost reaching the back door of the Prairie County Courthouse. The courthouse is just across Main Street from his businesses, and he spent time there as the county assessor from 1913-17, the county clerk from 1917-21 and the county judge from 1937-41.

I loved it when people would still refer to him as Judge Caskey, though it had been decades since he served in public office.

I thought of him again this afternoon when the U.S. Geological Survey reported that the White River at Des Arc has passed the previous high-water mark set in 1927. And the river is not even expected to crest there until tomorrow.

Even my mother, at age 85, was too young to remember the Great Flood of 1927.

For almost all of us who are alive in Arkansas today, this Great Flood of 2011 will be for us what the Great Flood of 1927 was for our parents and grandparents.

Sure, the system of levees along the Mississippi River and its tributuries will ensure that the damage is far less than it was 84 years ago. But this is a historic natural disaster. You’ll tell your children and grandchildren about the year when busy Interstate 40 was flooded for days.

One of the best works of nonfiction I’ve ever read is “Rising Tide,” John Barry’s account of the 1927 flood.

At the start of Chapter 12, Barry describes the rain-swollen Mississippi River this way: “There is no sight like the rising Mississippi. One cannot look at it without awe, or watch it rise and press against the levees without fear. It grows darker, angrier, dirtier; eddies and whirlpools erupt on its surface; it thickens with trees, rooftops, the occasional body of a mule. Its currents roil more, flow swifter, pummel its banks harder. When a section of riverbank caves into the river, acres of land at a time collapse, snapping trees with the great cracking sounds of heavy artillery. On the water the sound carries for miles.

“Unlike a human enemy, the river has no weakness, makes no mistakes, is perfect; unlike a human enemy, it will find and exploit any weakness. To repel it requires an intense, nearly perfect and sustained effort. Major John Lee, in the 1920s the Army district engineer at Vicksburg who would in 1944 make the cover of Time as an important World War II general, observed, ‘In physical and mental strain, a prolonged high-water fight on threatened levees can only be compared with real war.”

It’s what we now face: A prolonged high-water fight on threatened levees up and down the Mississippi and its tributaries.

There’s flooding on the Arkansas, the White, the Black, the Cache, the St. Francis, the Ouachita.

I attended the annual Little Rock meeting of the Delta Grassroots Caucus today at the Clinton Presidential Center and, as one might expect, the talk was all about the floods.

Gov. Mike Beebe stopped by on his way to check out the levees at West Memphis.

House Speaker Robert Moore, that proud son of Arkansas City, was in attendance to introduce the governor.

The 1927 flood, of course, had forever changed the fortunes of Arkansas City. More than 2,000 people had to be rescued in the area. Thousands of people camped for weeks in tents on the levee there.

Paula Reeves describes it this way for the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture (www.encyclopediaofarkansas.net): “The floodwaters were up to the second floor of some homes, and the citizens of the area camped in tents on top of the levee. When the floodwaters receded, the river channel, which was just across the levee, had moved about a mile to the east. This brought an end to the port at Arkansas City and made the railroads useless. The town never fully recovered from this tragedy.

“Arkansas City became a quiet little town in the years following the flood. There have been attempts to have the county seat moved to one of the larger cities in the county, but these attempts have been unsuccessful.”

Moore, a preservationist at heart, had been scheduled to make remarks during a Thursday luncheon that celebrated the 30th anniversary of the Historic Preservation Alliance of Arkansas.

The luncheon was held in the majestic 1924 Albert Pike Memorial Scottish Rite Temple in downtown Little Rock. The master of ceremonies, former U.S. Sen. David Pryor, noted that Moore was instead in a helicopter viewing the floods with officials from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Pryor then mentioned the famous incident in which Moore’s mother, Dorothy, received her high school diploma from the second-floor window of the Arkansas City school while seated in a boat in 1927.

The House speaker said Friday that now he will simply wait — it could be as late as May 16 before the Mississippi River crests at Arkansas City — while hoping the levees hold.

On Good Friday in April 1927, The New York Times reported: “From Cairo to the sea, the most menancing flood in years was sweeping down the Mississippi River and its tributaries tonight. High stages from Evansville, Ind., to Cairo, Ill., increased volume from smaller streams above Cairo, and the unloading of heavy surplus of the Arkansas and White rivers presaged a stage that may equal or surpass the records in 1922. … The guardians reported the great dikes in fine condition, but they placed men and machines at strategic points to reinforce any weakness which may develop under the immeasurable weight.”

The Commercial Appeal at Memphis reported that same day in 1927: “The roaring Mississippi River, bank and levee full from St. Louis to New Orleans, is believed to be on its mightiest rampage.”

This morning, the lead story in The Commercial Appeal began this way: “Defying all efforts to hold it back, the Mississippi River burst through a temporary levee and submerged a downtown-area airport Thursday before spilling onto Memphis’ doorstep at Riverside and Beale.

“All across the area, the river’s steady rise toward a historic crest prompted renewed preparation, with even venerable institutions such as St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital forced to take precautionary measures to protect their facilities from flooding.

“As of Thursday night, the Mississippi had swelled to 45.44 feet on the Memphis gauge, inches shy of the level of the 1927 flood and a little more than 3 feet below the record of 48.7 feet set in 1937. It is expected to crest at 48 feet on Wednesday, but forecasters suggested it could go slightly higher as a result of more rain upriver. … Some of the most telling evidence of the Mississippi’s rise could be found late Thursday at the foot of Beale, where water pooled beneath a trestle. Although the river was still a foot or so below the level of Riverside there, it was pushing water out of storm drains onto the pavement, forcing police to close portions of both streets.”

Late this morning, I received an email from the Riverfront Development Corp. at Memphis noting that Mud Island River Park had been closed.

“This is hopefully a once-in-a-lifetime event,” the email said. “Although people want to come down to witness it firsthand, they must be careful in where they drive. … The river is to be respected and safety must take priority.”

We’re witnessing a monumental event in the history of the Mid-South.

The Corps earlier this week blew a hole in the levee on the Missouri side of the river — flooding tens of thousands of acres in the Bootheel — in order to save Cairo.

Will major levees downstream hold?

It’s going to be an interesting weekend.

Please post your flood reports, memories and anecdotes in the comments section below as the Great Flood of 2011 plays out.

I’d love to hear from those of you who live between Memphis and Little Rock.

Post to Twitter