One of the Largest Levee Systems in the World
The first levees were constructed more than 3,000 years ago in ancient Egypt, where a system of levees was built along the left bank of the Nile River for over 600 miles. The Mississippi levees represent one of the largest such systems found anywhere in the world. They comprise more than 3,500 miles of levees, extending some 1,000 miles along the Mississippi, stretching from Cape Girardeau, Missouri, to the Mississippi Delta.
There are two types of levees currently used to protect cities and their residents – artificial and natural. Artificial levees prevent flooding of the adjourning countryside and confine the flow of the river, which results in higher and faster water flow. The surfaces of artificial levees must be protected from erosion, so they are planted with vegetation, like Bermuda grass, in order to bind the earth together.
When a river floods over its banks, the water spreads out, slows down, and deposits its load of sediment. Over time, the river's banks are built up above the level of the rest of the floodplain. The resulting ridges are called natural levees. The use of both type of levees have benefited many parts of the YMDL District. Through the use of sound knowledge and action by its committees, the YMD Levee Board hopes to continue with its preventative maintence for residents.
Yazoo-Mississippi Delta Levee History
The Yazoo-Mississippi Delta Levee District has a long history of erecting, maintaining, and operating a system of levees to protect the people and property of the Delta from the damages caused by the elevated waters of the Mississippi River as well as interior rivers and streams. The District also continues to furnish local cooperation required for certain flood control and drainage projects of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Over the years, YMDL District continues to update its tactics for dealing with the region’s flooding issues, providing safety and peace of mind for the citizens in the ten-county district.
An “Eyewitness Account” of the 1897 Crevasse
Editor's Note: Time being as inexorable as the flow of water down the Mighty Mississippi, there are no remaining witnesses to the 1897 levee crevasse at Flower Lake in Tunica County History, however, is but the after-fact chronicle of the contemporary. From the excellent account of F.M. Norfleet, as recorded in “Riparian Lands of the Mississippi River,” coupled with a little journalistic license, what follows is the closest thing possible to an eyewitness account. This is what a breached levee was like, from someone who experienced it 100 years ago.
Flower Lake—In early March the Mississippi River had reached danger stage at Cairo, and with the main tributaries adding additional volumes, I began to feel uneasy for the safety of the whole levee system and particularly that line fronting my planting interests in Tunica County here.
I decided to make a personal examination of the situation and help if I could. I found a four or five mile stretch of levee which was below the general grade at a very exposed place where the levee line was running East and West, directly opposed to the current of the Mississippi River.
After a meeting of concerned area residents, we began to raise the levee at once under the management of Capt. T.C. Ferguson, one of the YMDL District Commissioners, with the best forces we could muster, but it quickly became apparent that those efforts would prove too little, too late.
The Chief Engineer and other officials of the YMD Levee Board were fighting desperately to hold the levee line at Green Grove, in Coahoma County, exhausting virtually all the resources of the organization in that effort, which would ultimately prove successful, due largely to a break in the levee on the Arkansas side which allowed the crest of the great rise to flow off through the White River basin.
At that point, the YMD Levee Board was able to redirect its energies to the Flower Lake front under the supervision of Capt. A.L. Dabney, but it was too late for miracles.
The land in back of and along the line of levees had become so thoroughly saturated with seep water, that dirt could no longer be had to fill either sacks or wheelbarrows. Although we had piled sacks of earth on top of the levee four and five deep and backed them up with dirt for miles, we could see the rushing floods might well laugh at our puny efforts.
We knew then we must plan for the inevitable.
On April 3, Saturday afternoon, I told the heads of the families living on my place to cease working on the levees and arrange to protect their families, household effects, and livestock. (We had already built an enclosure adjoining a strong section of levee and had corralled all the livestock there for protection.)
There was little sleep for anyone in that period. We were experiencing the most terrific rain and wind storms, and peals of thunder shook the weary from their beds.
There was a pervasive sense of dread. I was apprehensive that this menacing wall of water might break through in the darkness, carrying death and destruction in its path. If the crash could have come earlier, before the water had been dammed to such a great height, the danger would have been less, but the long drawn-out fight and higher water only intensified the now expected calamity.
Amid drizzling rain, I sat in a chair on the levee all that night, accompanied by a dozen boys from the place, patrolling the levee with lanterns to see if the water was coming through.
At daylight of an otherwise beautiful Sunday morning it was obvious that the levee would not hold past noon. I returned to the plantation headquarters and notified the manager to prepare for the worst.
Later, accompanied by T.H. McKenzie of Lulu [now Lula], we rode on horseback to the levee to see if anything else might be done. McKenzie rode ahead down the levee, and when he had gone but a short distance, I heard him shout: “Bring 25 men with shovels and sacks—quick!”
When I joined him, I could see the waters breaking through the levee about one-third of the way down from the top—it was a high levee at this point—in a stream three or four inches in diameter. Before getting to where McKenzie stood, it was the size of a stove pipe. In less than a minute it grew to the size of a water bucket, then a barrel, and before I could even mentally describe it, the whole top of the levee was twisting in.
Then the water was forcing its way through in a great torrent, and striking the ground beyond the base of the levee with terrific force, rebounding in awful anger. White waves 20 feet high tore great oak and gum trees out by the roots and tossed them about as if they were cork.
The ends of the levee began to erode quickly on either side of the break until well over 15 acres were torn out like a great well, with holes and pits, some of them 50 feet deep.
The rushing, swirling, tumbling waters were at the same time a sight of wondrous grandeur and appalling solemnity.
The caving became more gradual until the break was about a half mile wide. Now absent the dreadful apprehension and facing its reality, we concentrated on getting all our families out of danger and then tried to prevent additional breaks.
I had witnessed the greatest crevasse that ever occurred on the banks of the greatest river in the world and from it I gleaned some insights which may prove useful in the future.
The result of my observations is that there is not half the danger to life and personal property in being located behind a great levee when the break occurs as one might think. For instance, it was at least six hours before the water covered my place. Also, just to the extent that the water raised on the land side, the level was lowered on the river, so that by the time there was an average of four feet on the land, the river had fallen four feet. The water never attained the depth one might have imagined.
Although four or five tenant houses were swept away, all the people on my place and those on adjoining places had ample time to get away to elevations of safety.
If the break (as feared) had occurred at night there might have been some loss of life, but I don’t think it truly probable. The rapid fall of the river after the break relieved the levee line above and below, so that it dried out quickly, affording a safe place for humans.
We had weathered the worst which was less than the worst of our imaginings, and we were encouraged by a pair of thoughts: The river was predicted to fall, and we had the assurances, augmented by previous successes, of the YMD Levee Board officials that the breach would be repaired as quickly as humanly possible.
Life had been but interrupted, not ended.
Landowners as Flood Fighters
From the earliest days of flood fighting in Mississippi, adjacent landowners have played a major role in that crucial activity. Landowners had strong motivation to protect their own lands and workers, thereby helping their neighbors in the process.
F.M. Norfleet, source of the “eyewitness account” of the 1897 levee failure at Flower Lake, exemplifies the committed landowners who answered the challenge of the floods of the Mississippi River.
Norfleet was a planter and cotton merchant who divided his time between his business interests in Memphis and his farming interests in Tunica.
He was actively involved in flood fighting matters over a period of years, and his opinions were highly respected within the flood control community.
Repairing the Break: The Great Flood Fight of 1897
Flower Lake—Exhausted flood fight leaders watched proudly on May 15, 1897, as Capt. A.L. Dabney, Principal Assistant Engineer, telegraphed his report to YMD Levee Board headquarters. Dabney could report the successful closure of the disastrous Flower Lake Crevasse on the previous afternoon, thereby shutting off all inflow of high water from the Mississippi River.
Nearly six weeks of round-the-clock effort by hundreds of men were spent stemming the torrents that poured through the levee when it broke on that fateful Sunday morning, April 4.
What resulted was little less than an engineering marvel.
As reported by F.M. Norfleet, as the opening between the ends of the levee widened to about 2,000 feet, Maj. T.G. Dabney, Chief Engineer, ordered the ends revetted with a mattress woven of willow trees and secured in place with sandbags strung on ¾-inch grass ropes, anchored well back in the sound portion of the levee.
With the ends of the levee secure, it was decided to construct pole dikes from each end in a large semicircle to the landward until they met in the middle, allowing the closure of the crevasse.
The skeleton dikes consisted of rows of wooden posts driven into the ground under the water by use of heavy hand mauls (hammers). The rows were about five feet apart, and the posts in the rows were about one foot apart.
Cross bracing and walkways were added as the rows were built, and sandbags were thrown in at the base of the posts—cut by hand on site until flatcars of sawmill lumber could be brought in from Helena, Arkansas—to prevent scouring. Depending on the depth and speed of the water, two to five rows of posts were utilized.
On Friday, May 7, Capt. Dabney reported difficulty in acquiring and holding sufficient numbers of labor, and with the prospect of local planters beginning their operations on dry ridges, the numbers were likely to become more depleted. Also, as the pile dikes lengthened, the greater the strain became on the men hauling sandbags. Dabney requested that headquarters send him 150 men, 50 pairs of blankets, and $250 in silver for payroll.
By May 9, he could report significant progress in the repair efforts, and by May 14, the remaining gap to be raised was about five feet deep and 150 feet in length.
The closing operation was accomplished by concentrating a large force of men who threw sandbags into the water on the upper side of the dike with such rapidity that in exactly 20 minutes, a dam of sacks was raised above the water surface. All further flow was cut off.
About 25 percent of the cultivated land in the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta Levee District was overflowed in 1897, but the newly protected land drained quickly enough that the year’s cotton crop could be planted.
The cost of closing the Flower Lake Crevasse was about $15,000 out of a total of about $100,000 spent by the YMDL District in the 1897 high water campaign.
The men standing around the telegraph that warm 15th day of May had no way of knowing the full impact of what they had done.
Although resting within the weary satisfaction of the hard, diligent work that produced a “job well done,” they could not know that they were also enjoying—along with the other citizens of the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta Levee District—the first day of 100 years free from the floods of the Mississippi River.
Eight individuals have served as Chief Engineers and guided the activities and fortunes of the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta Levee District for the past 129 years:
- T.G. Dabney served the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta Levee District as Chief Engineer from 1884 to 1920 and had further service as Consulting Engineer.
- W.L. Head served as Assistant Engineer and as Chief Engineer from 1920 to 1930.
- N.E. Offenheiser served as Assistant Engineer and as Chief Engineer from 1930 to 1942.
- W.T. McKie served as Assistant Engineer and as Chief Engineer from 1942 to 1964.
- Joseph F. Mooney served as Chief Engineer from 1964 to 1991 and has had further service as Consulting Engineer from 1991 to 2000.
- Kenneth Weiland served as Chief Engineer from 1991 to 2000.
- Kelly Greenwood served as Chief Engineer from 2002 to 2013.
- Bruce Cook currently serves as Chief Engineer.
Thomas Gregory Dabney has been described as the “father” of the levee system in the Yazoo-Mississippi Levee District.
A native of Raymond and educated there, he fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War and after the war worked on both levees and the new railroad system in Louisiana.
When he became Chief Engineer of the Yazoo-Mississippi Levee District in 1884, he found little more than the memory of a small levee. Before he ended his tenure, he had supervised the placement of two million cubic yards on a line almost 100 miles long.
He established and followed plans and specifications which provided levees in the Yazoo-Mississippi Levee District that were 20 percent larger than those recommended by the U.S. government.
One of his biographers wrote that Dabney negotiated levee building contracts totaling $15 million—a huge figure in those times—and that these negotiations were completed “without the slightest breath of suspicion as to any contract.”
Editor's Note: This article was originally authored by the late Harry Abernathy, historian and journalist for The Clarksdale Press Register. Minor revisions have been made by Joseph Mooney.
The Board of Levee Commissioners for the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta was formally created on Feb. 28, 1884, when the Mississippi Legislature approved the act establishing the commission. Before the year was out, the YMD Levee Board began building a system of levees which has not been crevassed since 1897.
The levees rebuilt or constructed in the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta Levee District soon became a model for the entire Mississippi River Valley. In fact, the high standards set in the upper Delta resulted in levees so well designed and constructed that the YMDL District was not eligible for federal funds under the earliest flood control acts because their levee exceeded the current federal standards.
The Legislation of 1884 defined the purpose of the new levee board and boundaries of its district as follows:
“That all of the counties of Tunica, Coahoma, Quitman, and Sunflower and that portion of the counties of DeSoto, Tallahatchie, Leflore, and Yazoo, lying west of the high water mark of the Mississippi River flood of 1882, at or near the foot of the hills, making said high-water mark the eastern boundary of the said levee district, and whenever said levee line of high water shall extend across said creek or branch bottom in a straight line, to the foot of the hills on the opposite site, be and the same is hereby organized into a levee district to be known and designated as the ‘Yazoo-Mississippi Delta Levee District’ and it is the purpose of this act to protect all property in this district from loss and destruction, and the lives of residents of the district from sickness and suffering consequent upon each overflow of the water of the Mississippi River, by erecting and maintaining efficient levees.”
In order to provide “start up” money for the “rebuilding, constructing, and maintaining of said levees” the Act of 1884 authorized the sale of $500,000 in bonds which would be repaid through an ad valorem tax. A levee tax rate of 13 mills on the dollar on the assessed value of all real and personal property was imposed in the front counties of Tunica and Coahoma and that part of DeSoto County included in the district. A tax of nine mills was imposed on property lying in the “back counties” or parts of such counties, which were included in the district.
The creation of the new Yazoo-Mississippi Delta Levee District was, in fact, a reaction to the great flood of 1882. That calamity has been described as “probably the most destructive flood in the recorded history of Mississippi River overflow.” The flood crest came in two waves, cresting in early February and again in late February. Flood stages continued for 91 days in New Orleans. It was estimated that 284 crevasses with a combined length of 56.1 miles formed in the main line of Mississippi River levees that bordered the Delta.
In the upper Yazoo Mississippi Delta, where levees had been neglected if not abandoned for a decade or more, entire levees washed away for miles. One official report said that, “At the height of the flood, the water discharged over the top of the levee in almost one continuous sheet from a point below Commerce (in Tunica County) to the railroad embankment back of Glendale (in Coahoma County), then at frequent intervals as far as Island No. 64.”
If the situation was grave along the South Delta river front, where the Mississippi Levee Commission had been operating since 1865, it was catastrophic in the Upper Delta where post-war efforts to reorganize an effective flood control program had met with no success.
After the tragedy of 1882, the Mississippi Levee Commission again appealed to its neighbors to the north and east to join in a unified levee district which could work to seal off the Delta, from Memphis to Vicksburg, with a continuous line of levees.
The experience of 1882 had convinced the unorganized counties that some plan of action was imperative. Additional floods in 1883 and 1884 served to strengthen that conviction. Even so, residents in the “northern” and “inland” counties again chose to go their separate ways. They moved to establish a new levee district, apart from but working in concert with the Mississippi Levee Commission toward a mutual goal—one which was believed could produce great benefits for the entire region.
After the flood of 1882, needed legislation was introduced in and approved by the 1884 session of the Mississippi Legislature.
At the outset, members of the Board of Commissioners of the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta Levee District were appointed every two years by the governor with the advice and consent of the State Senate. Tunica and Coahoma Counties had two representatives each, and DeSoto, Leflore, Quitman, Tallahatchie , Sunflower, and Yazoo Counties had one representative each. (Holmes County was added to the district in 1888 and Humphreys County in 1918.) The governor was also given authority to appoint one commissioner from among stockholders of the Memphis and Vicksburg Railroad.
When the first Board of Levee Commissioners held an organizational meeting in Austin (in Tunica County) on April 16, 1884, T.W. White of DeSoto County was named the first President and Reuh Page was named Secretary. Headquarters were established at the old courthouse in Austin.
Other members of the original commission were W.H. Stovall and J.F. Townsend of Coahoma County, Ben W. Sturdivant of Tallahatchie County, C.C. Crews and C.L. Robinson of Tunica County, James M. Heathman of Sunflower County, T.S. Mayre of Leflore County, W.A. Turner of Quitman County, B.S. Ricks of Yazoo County, and Thomas McGehee, representing the railroad.
Also at the first meeting of the new levee board—soon to be called the “Upper District” board—Thomas G. Dabney was named the first Chief Engineer. In writing later of his appointment, Dabney said he was a 6-5 choice for the post; the only other applicant being Robert H. Elliott, who was recommended by R.T. Wilson and Company, a firm which figured in the early financing of the district.
Prior to 1884, the so-called “lower board” had constructed and maintained levees as far north as Hushpuckena Bayou in Coahoma County, and that practice continued for a few years until special legislation extended the authority of the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta Levee District to include all the riverfront in Coahoma County.
The acquisition of funds to start levee construction proved difficult. A small amount of money was raised by private donation, but that money was earmarked for a preliminary survey rather than construction. Also, the Mississippi River Commission—which was to later offer financial assistance—had no funds immediately available for the new district.
When the authorized bonds were offered for sale, there were few purchasers because plantation owners in the region already were in desperate financial straits as the result of three serious floods in as many years. To resolve the problem, R.T. Wilson and Company, financiers of the railroad then being built through the Delta, agreed to help sell the bonds. In exchange for their cooperation, the company wanted the new “upper district” to merge with the “lower district,” and they wanted the levee board to support the railroad company’s position that levee maintenance and construction should be financed mainly through a tax on cotton, rather than a tax on land.
The railroad company had just acquired thousands of acres of Delta “right of way,” and its promoters, including R.T. Wilson and Company, hoped to avoid high ad valorem taxes on that land. They preferred that flood control work be financed by imposing a “per bale” tax on cotton produced in the district.
The levee commissioners promptly rejected the proposal for a unified levee district, and it appeared the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta Levee Board might be doomed even before it could begin its operations. R.T. Wilson and Company soon amended its conditions, however. The company’s insistence on a unified district was withdrawn once the levee board members agreed to put strong pressure on the Legislature to authorize a tax of $1.50 on each bale of cotton produced in the “front” counties and a tax of $1 on each bale in the "inland" counties.
Having concurred in the compromise, the company agreed to find the money to cash the bonds at par and charge a 2.5 percent commission. It also was agreed on the company’s request, that the Mississippi Valley Construction Company would get the contract for all the levee work at a price of 25 cents per cubic yard of earth moved.
In commenting later on the board’s first major business transaction, Dabney recalled that the “price demanded was not excessive” and that the construction company “realized seven percent profit on their outlay.”
With funds in the bank, the levee board’s engineering department launched an intensive building effort. They were faced with 30 major crevasses in the old line, the breaks totaling about 39 miles in length. The levees still in place were severely damaged and because trees had been allowed to grow on the embankments during the long period of neglect, roots and debris had made the soil porous and rendered much of the old levees all but useless.
The situation soon changed dramatically. Between October 10, 1884, and March 1, 1885, contractors and sub-contractors were busy from the northern end of the district levee near Chickasaw Bluffs, south of Memphis, to the lower end near the mouth of Hushpuckena Bayou. Two million cubic yards of dirt were placed on 97 miles of levee—mainly by Irish immigrant laborers using picks and shovels.
In recalling the undertaking in later years, Dabney remembered, “The work was pushed with vigor, and by March 1885, was all completed in a satisfactory manner. By these operations all the existing gaps in the levee were closed, the low levees raised to a higher grade, and the weak places strengthened.”
With this almost astounding success behind them, the Upper District board members prepared new requests for the 1886 session of the Legislature.
For one thing, state lawmakers on January 19, 1886, approved legislation which moved the district headquarters from Austin to Clarksdale. The YMD Levee Board occupied a frame building on the east bank of the Sunflower River, just north of the railroad, until its present building was completed in 1912.
In response to the commission’s requests, the Legislature amended the act of 1884 to authorize the YMD Levee Board to raise an additional $400,000 through bond issue, and it allowed the board to incur debts in anticipation of surplus revenues—allowing more flexibility in financing its operation.
To pay off the debts incurred by the board, the Legislature approved a cotton tax of $1 per bale on all cotton produced in Coahoma, DeSoto, and Tunica counties and a tax of 80 cents per bale on cotton raised in other district counties. Also provided were a tax of one-fifteenth cent per pound on lint cotton grown in the “front” counties and a tax of one-twentieth cent per pound on lint cotton grown in the “back” counties.
The cotton tax was to be collected before the cotton could be moved from the district.
In the amending act, the Legislature also raised the ad valorem tax from 13 mills to 17.5 mills in the “front” counties and from nine mills to 12 mills in the “back” counties. In addition, various businesses throughout the district were to pay special taxes and thereby share in the cost of flood control.
Hay was planted on the levee slopes, and revenue from sale of the crop was a significant factor in district finances for a number of years. In more recent times, the levee slopes have been leased to livestock producers for grazing purpose.
With sound financing provided, the YMD Levee Board produced a surplus of about $100,000 for a time. The cotton tax, however, was not to become a permanent feature of the district’s financing. The ad valorem tax, sometimes coupled with a flat “per acre” tax, has been the most enduring method of financing the YMD Levee Board’s activities.
From 1886 to 1890 there were high water periods, but the floods were not major in scope. After the high water of 1886, Dabney began an intensive program of levee enlargement and repair. High water in 1887 and 1888 caused some alarm and created some inconvenience, but the levee engineers and contractors learned some valuable lessons from these experiences.
Levee officials on the east bank were also carefully watching levee building efforts on the Arkansas shore. They knew that the work just across the river would affect their own efforts since water that previously had spread out over Arkansas lowlands would be confined between the levees then taking shape on both sides simultaneously. It was an accepted fact that levees would have to be built higher, on both sides, once the levee system was in place. The annual river rises were studied so that “educated guesses” could be made.
The high water of 1897 was responsible for the crevasse which flooded much of the North Delta at Flower Lake in Tunica County. It also was regarded as the first flood which could accurately indicate the maximum high water following the closing of the St. Francis and White River Basins on the Arkansas side, opposite the district.
With the 1897 experience behind him, Dabney felt more confident in preparing grades for what he regarded as a completed system. There was another major flood in 1903 which tended to affirm calculations Dabney had made in 1901, so he proceeded to raise the levees in the upper Delta to a grade two feet above the high water mark for a completely “levied” basin.
Following the flooding of 1903 Dabney also ordered about 25 sub-levees built in areas where seepage was severe, and after the floods of 1912 and 1913, he expanded this system of sub-levees considerably.
As Chief Engineer and later as Consulting Engineer, Dabney devoted almost 40 years to the work of safeguarding the Delta against floods. At the start of his career, he established high standards for the district, and the YMD Levee Board has retained them over the years.
The floods of 1912 and 1913 were devastating in many areas and revived public clamor for federal supervision of flood control. In 1917, Congress passed historic legislation which provided that the U.S. government, working through the Corps of Engineers, would build the levees if local districts would provide one-third of the cost and secure rights-of-way. The era of contracting for levee construction—except with the federal government—then all but ended.
The U.S. shortly became involved in World War I, and non-essential undertakings by the Army and its components came to a sudden halt. It was not until the 1920s that federal participation in levee construction began again on a full scale. In the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta Levee District, where levees were already far superior to those in other districts, no federal assistance was forthcoming until after the disastrous flood of 1927.
The Flood Control Act of 1928 included a comprehensive plan for levees, cutoffs, reservoirs, and floodways–all to be built by the Corps of Engineers. Local interests were required to provide rights-of-way, and then to operate and maintain the constructed works.
As the fruits of the 1928 act began to be realized, it became evident that other water, such as local runoff or that backing in at the lower end of the levee systems, greatly reduced the benefits of the primary works. Accordingly, numerous subsequent acts modified and enlarged the original plans.
In the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta Levee District, the Yazoo Headwater Project authorized in 1936, the Yazoo Backwater Project authorized in 1941, and the Sunflower Basin Project authorized in 1944 were included in this expanded operation.
The Yazoo Headwater Project provides reservoirs and improvements to the Yazoo–Tallahatchie–Coldwater River systems to carry hill water safely through the Delta to the Mississippi River.
The Yazoo Backwater Project provides a levee, flood gates, and a pump to prevent the water of the Mississippi River and the Yazoo River from backing out on the lower portions of the Mississippi Delta.
The Sunflower River and Tributaries Project provides for improved major drainage for runoff originating within the protected area.
Subsequent flood control acts provided levee enhancements necessary because of experiences of the 1937 and 1973 floods. The Yazoo-Mississippi Delta Levee District levee is fully up to authorized grade and section since 1969, due in part to wise decisions and commitment to the task by the Commissioners and staff of the District.
Today’s system of levees in the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta Levee District was begun in the early days of statehood before the Civil War and has gradually grown in size and shape to meet changing conditions during the intervening years.
The earliest levees along the Mississippi River were generally about three feet above the natural ground, and these levees were built primarily by the river-front landowners.
The state system built between 1858 and 1861 averaged six feet in height, although in crossing certain sloughs and streams, some levees were as much as 20 feet high.
The Upper Delta experienced political and practical problems reorganizing flood control efforts following the Civil War, and it was not until 1884, following the disastrous flood of 1882, that the Yazoo Mississippi Levee District was organized.
Once the initial task of closing the levee breaks was completed, the staff developed a rational method of designing new earthworks in DeSoto, Coahoma, and Tunica counties which came to be regarded as “models” for levee construction contractors in other areas along the river.
The drawings (featured below) show how the design levee was heightened and widened at several key intervals, usually in the wake of calamitous floods that demonstrated the need for design improvements.
The levee has grown in height from an average of eight feet in 1884 to an average of about 40 feet today. Similarly, the design levee (not counting berms) has widened from an average base width of 58 feet in 1884 to an average base of 350 feet today. If one adds the average 40 feet of riverside berm and the average 300 feet of landside berm, the full base width of today’s levee is close to 700 feet.
The sketch below illustrates that the present day levee actually consists of a number of carefully controlled features. The central or core feature is the design levee whose height, side slopes, base width, crown width, and construction material are determined by specific engineering criteria.
On the landside of the design levee is a roadway addition of about 15 feet in width to provide a 25 foot-wide roadway for maintenance and flood-fighting vehicles. Also on the landside is a wide layer of dirt called a berm to guard against boils and uplift due to under seepage during high flood stages.
On the riverside of the levee is a layer of heavy, impervious clay and a riverside berm to prevent the passage of seepage through the design levee section.
A healthy, well-groomed sod of Bermuda grass is planted and nurtured on the entire levee surface to protect the dirt material of the levee from erosion by wind and rain. In the riverside borrow pits, which provided most of the material for construction of the levee, natural tree growth is encouraged to protect the levee from wave wash during high water stages. The YMD Levee Board employs a forestry crew to ensure the natural growth does not occur on its own.
After the Flower Lake crevasse was closed, Chief Engineer T.G. Dabney studied the lessons of the 1897 flood and sought funds for a major construction program. He declared his objective to raise the grade of his levee, and “the other dimensions in proportion, as rapidly as means [money] would allow to reach the condition of strength necessary to successfully resist the maximum strain. Work proceeded at an excellent pace aided by a period of five years of insignificant high water stages.”
Flood of 1903
Dabney’s theories that the progress of leveeing both sides of the river would tend to raise flood stages for a given volume were confirmed by the flood of 1903. Levees from Cairo to the Gulf failed under the pressure of that flood, but Dabney’s levee held firm.
His biggest problems stemmed from the water seeping through and under the levee. Dabney began to address this problem as well as those of wave wash and current scour. In the succeeding ten work seasons, the YMDL District made marvelous progress in the construction of the levee and new features. By 1910, the Mississippi River Commission and other respected engineers considered the YMDL more or less complete.
Floods of 1912-1913
These back to back floods were a disaster to the Mississippi Valley and had the effect of turning national attention to the burdens of flood control for the alluvial valley. With the exception of the YMDL District, every Levee District throughout the valley suffered one or more crevasses.
Many voices had cried for greater participation on the part of the federal government, and now those voices were being heard. The groundwork was being laid for the enactment of the first federal Flood Control Act which would finally pass in 1919.
While the YMDL District suffered no breaks in either flood, the District carried on an intense flood fight throughout the duration of each flood. It became clear that the best of levees would require continual maintenance during low stage periods and well-planned flood fight organization during high stages.
Flood of 1927
Despite the work accomplished under the Flood Control Act of 1919, the 1927 flood ravaged nearly the entire valley except the YMDL District. The loss of life and loss of property convinced the Congress of the United States that a comprehensive federal plan was the only answer to floods of the Mississippi Valley. The result was the Flood Control Act of 1928 which adopted a Corps of Engineers plan for levees, channel improvements, reservoirs, and floodways.
The YMDL District Levee withstood the flood rather well, but the foundation problems of boils and under seepage were quite severe. Large numbers of laborers were required to carry many sandbags through the soft and treacherous areas at the landside toe of the levee. Extensive work was required to ensure the safety of the levee, and careful documentation was made of all problem areas. Because of these lessons, the 1941 Amendment to the Flood Control Act included construction of an impervious blanket along the face of the levee and extensive anti-seepage berms along the landside of the levee.
Flood of 1973
This substantial flood was significant because of the changes in the way flood fights had to be fought. Manpower was no longer available in the quantity and quality used in prior flood fights. The concept and organization of a flood fight had to be modified to make maximum use of new tools and equipment. The long duration of the flood drew attention to the continuing problems of wave wash, boils, and current scour. The YMDL District modified its maintenance practices to make greater provision for coping with these problems.
Flood of 1997
The recently concluded high water is significant because it allowed the District to evaluate the effectiveness of measures taken to cope with problems caused by the utilization of the flood plain for casino facilities. Flood waters and currents act differently since the huge fills for parking lots and buildings have been put in place. The District required some of the roadway crossings and borrow pit fills to be made in a fashion to divert flow away from the levee.
Flood of 2011
The 2011 Mississippi River flood tested the Mississippi River and Tributaries System and those who managed it as never before. River Stages and flow rates broke records up and down the river during what was the largest flood in recorded history on the Mississippi river between Cairo and Baton Rouge. Three of four floodways were opened for the first time in history to accommodate the high volume of water flowing down the great Mississippi River. Not a single person was killed as a result of the great flood of 2011.