On Thursday, April 21, 1927, Army district engineer Major John Lee wired General Edgar Jadwin, the head of the Army Corps of Engineers, this message: "Levee broke at ferry landing Mounds, Mississippi eight a.m. Crevasse will overflow the entire Mississippi Delta." While engineers and Delta planters had long known Mounds Landing was a vulnerable point on the levee system, no one expected a disaster of this magnitude. Of all the breaches along the Mississippi, this would be the worst levee break of the entire flood. In fact, it is still noted as the worst levee break anywhere in the United States.
Four hundred fifty men had worked through the night in a desperate effort to save the levee, but the river rose too fast. One worker recalled, "It was just boiling up. The levee just started shaking. You could feel it shaking." In the early hours of the morning small breaks started to appear. Fifteen hundred additional men were rushed to the site, but their efforts could not save the levee. What had begun as a small break quickly became a raging river. Guards forced the African American laborers to keep filling sandbags at gunpoint, but everyone there could feel that the levee was about to collapse under their feet. Sandbags started to wash away, the river ran over the top of the levee, and men took off as fast as they could run. As the levee collapsed, many of the workers were swept away. Soon every fire whistle, church bell and mill whistle rang out to warn the county.
The force of the torrent was unstoppable, scouring out the land and uprooting everything in its path. Trees, buildings, and even railroad embankments were washed away in moments. Even Egypt Ridge, so named because no flood had ever reached it before, was soon engulfed. For 60 miles east of the crevasse and 90 miles south there was nothing but water. Where farms and towns had been, it looked like an ocean. Seventy-five miles away, in Yazoo City, the water was high enough to cover the roofs of homes. In a matter of days, 10 million acres of land would be under 10 feet of water.
In a flash, the break at Mounds Landing left tens of thousands of people homeless. Almost the entire population of the county, 185,000 residents, was forced to evacuate. People stranded on rooftops or in treetops waited for boats to find them, praying they would be rescued before their building collapsed or tree was uprooted. But the water wasn't the only mortal danger they faced. With storms continuing to pound the region and bring unseasonably cold temperatures, some died of exposure.
Any boat in the area was immediately pressed into service. Motor boats were best for the job, but they were rare in the region. The rescue workers raced against time, but they had one secret weapon - the bootleggers. They came down from Arkansas with the fastest and most powerful boats and joined the effort to save lives. It was 36 hours of sheer terror, and order was not always easy to maintain. In some cases, rescuers needed guns to prevent anxious flood victims from overcrowding a boat, which could cause it to sink or capsize.
It would take months for the water to recede. Five weeks after the levee collapsed, engineers surveying the crevasse found waves still as high as 12 feet and water deeper than 100 feet. The crevasse itself was three-quarters of a mile wide. In time, the flood waters would recede and towns would be rebuilt, but evidence of the yellow sea that engulfed the entire Mississippi Delta still exists today in the form of a 65-acre lake created by the levee break at Mounds Landing.
Robert Marshall, Aldo Leopold and Howard Zahniser dedicated their lives to protect the shrinking American wilderness.
John Wesley Powell's epic journey into the unknown Grand Canyon was filled with adventure as his team mapped the Colorado River for the first time.
This stunning film portrait of Yosemite National Park uses the 1851 diary of the first expedition of soldiers into the Native American territory.
Before radar had been invented a devastating hurricane hit America, surprising residents of the East Coast and killing more than 600 people.
The New Deal program CCC put three million young men to work in camps across America.
The contradictory history of a dam that became a statement of American power and prestige.
The story of the farmers who dreamed of prosperity and lived through ten years of drought, dust, disease and death.
Her 1963 warnings about the effects of pesticides and herbicides sparked a revolution in environmental policy.