Flooding had been a periodic problem in Arkansas throughout recorded history. The original Arkansas capital of Arkansas Post on the Mississippi and Arkansas Rivers had to move several times because of flooding and was ultimately abandoned. Throughout the nineteenth century, efforts were made to build levees and dams in attempts to control flooding. Floods in 1915 and 1922 caused millions of dollars in damages to the state. Perhaps the worst was the Flood of 1927, a flood of almost biblical proportions, which devastated the entire Mississippi River Valley.
The spring of 1927 was unique for just how much rain fell. Already, February floods had left 5,000 Arkansans homeless. While April is typically a month of very heavy rain for the state, seven counties reported more than 20 inches of rainfall that month alone, including Saline, Garland, and Montgomery counties in Central Arkansas and Cross County in East Arkansas. Outbreaks of tornadoes worsened matters. Of the state’s 75 counties, only four recorded less than eight inches of rain, including Union and Columbia. Most of the counties along the Arkansas and White rivers all received more than a foot of rain.
As bad as the rainfall was for Arkansas that April, it was about to get much worse because of what was happening hundreds of miles upstream. The Mississippi River was already bloated from unusually heavy rains from the previous summer and fall in the Midwest and heavy snowfall in Tennessee that winter. A warmer than usual spring in the Great Plains meant the snow was melting early, with the water rushing into the streams and rivers. Heavy rainfall in Kansas, Oklahoma, and Iowa made the situation even more dangerous. Floodwaters rushing from the Tennessee and Missouri rivers poured into the Mississippi as it flowed ever southward toward the Gulf of Mexico. By March, flooding in Oklahoma had already caused more than a dozen deaths as the Arkansas River swelled as rainfall gushed into it.
Storm patterns in the Central and Eastern United States typically move from west to east. As flooding pummeled Oklahoma, those same storms moved into Arkansas and dumped even more rain. By early April, the Mississippi River at Greenville, Mississippi, and Lake Village was already at a record level. At one point, community leaders at Memphis and West Memphis sent a boat to inspect the river and the existing levees. The sweeping river pushed the boat out of control, hitting a levee, causing it to burst. Nineteen people drowned. And the rains came heavier still.
All the levees that had been constructed along the Mississippi River to that point crumbled under the force of the water. At the height of the flooding in May, the river rushed past the Memphis-West Memphis line at a rate of three million cubic feet per second, far past the anything seen on the river since. The river spilled its banks onto the farms and into the villages throughout East Arkansas. The Mississippi River was reported to have spread to more than 60 miles wide as it spilled its banks. More than 16.5 million acres were underwater up and down the Mississippi River. In Arkansas itself, the flooding of the Arkansas and White Rivers in addition to the Mississippi Delta counties left more than half of the state’s counties experiencing devastating flood conditions. The Whtie and St. Francis rivers were miles wide. A family of four drowned in El Dorado while Helena ordered all train cars and surviving homes to be opened to refugees. One Arkansas acre out of every seven under water.
Families fled to high ground, but others were swept away by the floodwaters. In many cases, the only safe ground was so isolated that they could not be rescued. Hundreds of people were stranded for days without food or clean water. The Red Cross, states, communities, and the federal government hastily attempted to build refugee camps. However, conditions were cramped, supplies were scarce, and disease erupted.
By the time the crisis ended, at least 127 Arkansans were known to have died, with 500 dead across the region. More than 700,000 had fled, with nothing but devastation in its wake. While times of crisis and disaster often bring out the best in people, the Flood of 1927 instead brought out the ugliest side of the 1920s South.
Aid came down to help the victims, but local officials seized food, medicine, water, and clothing and doled it out based on race and not need. While whites were handed aid out of compassion, African-Americans in many areas were forced to work for food. Unmarried African-American women had to have white residents vouch for them before they could receive aid. Medical care was denied, and the human toll grew in the chaotic months afterward.
Eventually, the floodwaters receded, the damage repaired, and memories faded. It was the fourth worst flood in recorded world history. The Flood Control Act of 1928 put the US Army Corps of Engineers in charge of building a new system of levees along the river for hundreds of miles. New flood control measures were added in the 1930s and 1940s and disaster planning improved. But residents continued to stay at the mercy of the rivers.