I was deployed by an aid agency to help with disaster relief operations in areas near the flooded Mississippi River in May of 2011.
“The South is a region that history has happened to.” -Richard Weaver
It is hard to describe the Mississippi countryside without a visual, just like it is impossible to express how the Blues makes you feel as it passes through your ears into your soul.
Muddy Waters – Rolling Fork
B.B. King- Indianola
As part of my deployment duties I traveled from Jackson to Vicksburg, to Satartia, Yazoo City, Rolling Fork and Belzoni; from Hollandale, to Greenville and Greenwood, and Port Gibson, Lorman and Rodney. I even crossed to the eastern side of the state via Meridian and Louisville. In 12 days I covered thousands of miles because the Mississippi River was swallowing up the land.
Each time I traveled north from Jackson on Highway 49W, the water inched its’ way to the road. The beach it created was dirt filled, silt filled and alligator and water moccasin filled. One day the Mississippi Ocean spread its’ fingers and enclosed the road as greedily as a userer, taking back the land it had lent for as long as those in Mississippi could remember. It swallowed thousands of acres of crops, homes, with no thought as to rich or poor, black or white-the Great Flood.
In Satartia a handful of homes floated in the water while the levee held. Reporters, locals, residents walked the levee and gawked at the rising waters. To the left three pick up trucks parked in front of a sign strung across a dirt roadway that read “DO NOT ENTER.” Two men rested on the hood of one Ford, while the other two pickups enclosed two more good ol’ boys. All four were positioned as if they had been in that exact spot their entire lives. Each laughed the laughter of familiarity. We were Yankees.
“Bill, ya know any Yankees in these pawts?”
“Yes, sir. Yankees come down here to visit and they don never return to the North. They get the Miss’ippi in thair blood and nevah nuttin’ else satisfies.”
There were sightings of bears and alligators in residential areas. Three dogs claimed a section of Highway 49. One time they sniffed along the pavement, the next day they walked in and out of the woods, while the third time I passed by, they slept in the median. Two other dogs owned the levee in Satartia. They each entered the water with pride, while the rest of us stayed away like it was nuclear, toxic. It was that thing you are obsessed with, talk about constantly, but when you are faced with it, you shrink in yourself or hide behind your mama’s legs.
I heard stories of people who lost all they had and didn’t know what they were going to do next.
Fields are lakes.
Roads are rivers.
Houses are boats.
People are mosquitoes, born from the waters of the Yazoo and the Mississippi.
Per Capita Income: $9,251
Hometown of Willie Morris
When I was in high school, my speech teacher asked the class, “What is your definition of a poor man?” Hands rose all over the room. “$30,000 a year,” they said. “Maybe 20,000 a year.”
I drove through Yazoo three times. Other than the vehicles parked along the way, the historic Yazoo Main Street was stuck in a by-gone era. Some buildings were brightly painted while others in such disrepair, crumbled to pieces in the roadway and traffic was not allowed to pass.
The road slanted like a collapsing building or the countryside as you entered from the south. One building was gutted except for the second story façade. The internal part of the structure remained open to the elements and was repurposed into a theater. To be sure it wouldn’t collapse, someone propped up the walls with beams and two-by-fours. Half the buildings were empty. The other half had “Open” signs hanging on the doors, but when you stuck your face to the windows, it was a ghost town. The lights were on, but no one was home.
Homes were flooded in Yazoo City. People stopped at the gas station on the other side of the tracks, cars stuffed to the ceiling with possessions. They couldn’t pack up the land, even though they tried. Sam jumped out of his cousin’s SUV. Hands shaking “I hab ma paypas,” he mumbled, but loudly. “Here’s FEMA, here’s ma address. Help me.” His eyes were wide and blood shot from lack of sleep.
“I wadn’t in town. My neighbo called me cause’ ta water was risin’ and my house was gonna be gone. I cawdn’t get ta my house. My ma and pa are old an dey don wanna leave an da waters are comin’.”
Across the street was a shack that, the locals assured me, served the best crawfish around. Preaux Cajun MudBugs Shrimp was its name, a tiny, empty hole in the wall. I ate crawfish tail in a screened porch and discussed art and blogging with a former corrections officer from Saugatuck, Michigan.
“There’all be some mightay fine crawfishin’ when the Miss’ippi recedes,” said a local man. “The flood waters make some pawfect conditions for large crawfish. We’all just haf ta wait fa it.”
And the people in the lowlands near The Mississippi waited. Oh, they waited with dread.
I heard on the radio that a man died in the waters. Rescuers saw him clinging to a pole, but by the time they reached him, he had drowned.
I heard of a dog that was standing near the water in a residential area and an alligator jumped out of the flooded mess and ate it.
I talked to a man near the almost-ghost town of Rodney, Mississippi, standing in front of the levee he built around his house. He pumped 62,000 gallons of water a day away from his home. He was living in a trailer on the back of his property.
I saw farmers working a field on one end, while the other end was submerged in water. I passed by other fields that were so dry, the dirt was flying into the air with every wind gust. What was the use of planting crops when you were going to lose them?
“We know six farmers who lost 12,000 acres of crops,” said Olivia, a cotton ginner’s wife in Lake Providence, Louisiana. “I grew up here and I have never seen the water so high. Those of us who know the river think that it has permanently changed its’ course.”
Change. It’s what rivers do to the land- to the people.
As I finished my deployment duties and flew back to my Midwest home, I brought a little bit of the South home with me, not just on my boots, but buried in my soul.
*All names were changed for the sake of privacy