To see more images of Hodding Carter's 300-mile ride down the Mississippi at flood stage, check out guide John Ruskey's blog at Deltabohemian.com.
It was a great but melancholy sensation—feeling a part of this river that was now wilder than it had been in decades. It’s not that we didn’t lament the destruction around us. Mississippi’s farms alone would suffer $250 million in damage, and it would be weeks before people in low-lying communities, like the upper Delta’s Tunica Cutoff, could visit their homes, let alone begin to face the heartbreaking decision to restore, rebuild, or move on. That decision would be played out up and down the river in the coming weeks: early estimates showed close to 10,000 people displaced by the flood and $4 billion in damage to homes, businesses, infrastructure, and farms.
Clearly, given the devastation of ’27, America’s engineers had done right to try and make life along the Mississippi safer. But the current system’s complete reliance on containing and draining had too many drawbacks. Besides the expanding dead zone in the Gulf, there were far too many natural flood basins being protected by floodgates, pumps, and levees that, at great expense to taxpayers, kept land open to only a handful of farmers. These flood basins exist all along the river, and environmental organizations like American Rivers, in conjunction with federal and state officials, Gulf of Mexico fisheries representatives, and fishing and hunting conservation groups, are promoting policies that would restore them.
Under this alternative vision, reclaimed floodplains would again support plants and animals indigenous to the area’s bottomland hardwood forests, only slowly releasing runoff downstream. This would also alleviate pressure on the swamps of the Atchafalaya Basin, which were inundated by the deluge of water released in May through the Morganza Spillway northwest of New Orleans. In strategic areas, levees would be moved back or notched to reconnect the river with its floodplain.
“We need to give the river more room to move,” says Andrew Fahlund, vice president of conservation for American Rivers. “Unless we restore our natural defenses, we will burden future generations with increasingly disastrous floods.”
While I’d always agreed with the idea of controlling the Mississippi naturally, that was in the hopes of helping the Gulf of Mexico and the wetlands up and down its banks. Now, after experiencing the Mississippi when it was clean-smelling and free, I felt like the river itself deserved a change.
THAT NIGHT WE CAMPED at a place on the Mississippi that I knew from childhood—one that had taught me a lifelong lesson. It was a steep, 30-foot-tall set of sandy bluffs at Leland Neck, on the Arkansas side. Always a natural beacon in the flattened Delta landscape, it was also, on the night of May 17, the only piece of dry land for miles.
In 1972, my grandfather Big died when he was only 65, worn down, perhaps, by the years of fighting his enemies—and most definitely from drinking. Who could blame him for turning to alcohol, though, when an entire state reviled him? To pay the bills and prepare the way for selling the Delta Democrat Times, my family and their business partner sold off some of the paper’s more extraneous, high-end items. The 40-foot cabin cruiser Mistuh Charley went in June of ’76, the year I turned 14—but not before I, in a fit of anger, liberated the 12-foot lifeboat strapped to its roof. The little dinghy was a covetable example of craftsmanship, with its sleek lines, wave-slicing V hull, and dashing teak rail. But all I cared about was that it had a temperamental little 12-and-a-half-horsepower outboard.
My parents were splitting up that summer, and my dad, who’d taken over editing the paper, was out on the campaign trail with Jimmy Carter. Back home, there were only a minimal number of rules governing our lives. Two family statutes, however, remained absolute: (1) Hodding shalt not swim anywhere near the river, and (2) Hodding shalt not be so dumb as to even think about taking that damned lifeboat onto the river. “Yes, ma’am,” I told my mother in all honesty. “Not a problem. I’m not that crazy!”