Mississippi Delta Feels Wrath Of Mighty River

The surge of water moving down the Mississippi River is making its way into the Mississippi Delta. The region has a long history of flooding.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

The trouble facing Mississippi this morning begins with the simple fact that water flows downhill, and floodwaters crested at Memphis, Tennessee this week. Most of the city survived, but now that high water is moving downriver.

INSKEEP: Look at a map, and below Memphis you find the Mississippi Delta region, a tangle of rivers, streams and farmland. It has been the scene of epic floods like a 1927 disaster immortalized in folk songs and even a novel by William Faulkner. Now people face the high water again.

And NPR's Debbie Elliott is in the Mississippi Delta.

Debbie, where are you exactly?

DEBBIE ELLIOTT: I am in Greenwood, Mississippi, a little bit inland from the Mississippi River.

INSKEEP: Which has had its own history of flooding, has it not?

ELLIOTT: It does. The Yazoo River is the river that runs right here through Greenwood. And coming across the bridge last night, the water is higher than I have ever seen it, and I've been covering this region for many years now.

INSKEEP: Of course, there's a whole system of levees there. Are the levees holding?

ELLIOTT: So far, the levees are doing what they are intended to do. And officials here are busy, busy working to make sure that they will continue to hold. I spent a lot of time in Greenville, Mississippi yesterday, which is, you know, the city - one of the larger cities along the delta as you make your way from Memphis down toward New Orleans. And basically, trucks were ferrying dirt to places on the levee where they have what are known as sand boils. That's where water has come under these earthen dams and could be washing away at the structures. So they're busy trying to fix those.

In downtown Greenville itself, which sits on the water, officials have taken big - they almost look like big, green trash cans, big plastic structures, filled them with sand and blocked off areas where you used to be able to drive through the levee and to a waterfront park, that waterfront park now underwater. All you can see are the very tops of the light posts. And people were flocking down to the levee to watch and to see, and to watch in awe as the Mississippi River gets higher and higher and higher.

INSKEEP: You know, those rivers in the Mississippi Delta normally would flow into the Mississippi River. That Faulkner novel, "Old Man," has a scene in which favorite Yazoo River, I believe, the one you're near, is flowing backwards. There's so much water in the Mississippi River, it's actually flowing - causing the tributaries to flow backwards. And I later learned that that actually happened. Does that - is that happening now?

ELLIOTT: It is not happening now. But, of course, that's everyone's huge fear. Right now, officials think that the levees will protect the bigger cities, they will protect places like Greenville, will protect Natchez and Vicksburg, other than the low-lying neighborhoods that might be on the water side of the levee.

Now, the issue is whether that Yazoo River fills up, will it be able to hold? And already, officials are predicting that it could come over, you know, its banks did some places on what they call the Backwater Levees. And that's going to affect a lot of farmers. I ran across a few farms yesterday, tractors crazy, plowing out wheat fields, plowing up a field that would be close to harvest right now, using that dirt to build earthen dams around homes, around the silos where the grain is, trying to protect the corn fields that are about halfway ripe right now. Soybean has just been planted. Cotton has just been planted. Farmers expecting to lose acres and acres of farmland at this point.

INSKEEP: How conscious are people of the history of floods in their area? How much is that part of the local culture?

ELLIOTT: It is huge. Everyone you talk to, they say, wow, this is going to top '27. Now, most people weren't here for the '27 flood, but it is so much a part of the local lore and culture, that that's like the benchmark for everyone. Everyone remembers their father or their grandfather or their grandmother telling stories of just how awful it was.

And what's interesting here is the relationship with the river. You know, the Mississippi Delta isn't really a delta at all. It's really this great, fertile floodplain where the Mississippi River has ranged nearly 80 miles wide for, you know, for all throughout history. And that's what's created the fertile farmland that is so much a part of what the Mississippi Delta is.

INSKEEP: Debbie, thanks very much.

ELLIOTT: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: NPR's Debbie Elliott is reporting this morning from the Mississippi Delta, the latest area along the Mississippi River to face possible flooding.

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