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Birney Imes: If it keeps on rainin' …


Birney Imes



If it keeps on rainin'', levee''s goin'' to break 


If it keeps on rainin'', levee''s goin'' to break 


And the water gonna come in, have no place to stay 




Well all last night I sat on the levee and moan 


Well all last night I sat on the levee and moan 


Thinkin'' ''bout my baby and my happy home 


When the Levee Breaks, first recorded by Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie after the 1927 flood, later by Led Zeppelin 




DeLoach Cope was 5 years old when the flood of ''27 washed over the Mississippi Delta. 


"Water had gotten under the house in Hollandale and Daddy drove the car up on the porch," Cope said. 


A family friend, the owner of the cottonseed oil mill, had a boat in which his wife and daughter along with Cope and his mother fled Hollandale for Leland, 20 miles to the north. 


"I remember seeing billy goats and chickens on top of houses," he says of that voyage. 


In Leland they stayed over with friends on Deer Creek. The next morning they took another boat to Shaw where they caught a train to Memphis. 


In Memphis they got on a southbound train to Hattiesburg where they stayed with relatives until the waters receded. 


Friday morning Cope, who is almost 90 and faced with the possibility of having to make another evacuation, was in his farm office going over his business records. He and his wife, Allegra, live on their 1,000 acre plantation near Arcola, a Delta hamlet halfway between Leland and Hollandale. Their son, DeLoach Jr., farms the land; one of their two daughters, also Allegra, is interim president of Mississippi University for Women. 


Cope says he and his wife have essentials and valuables packed and ready to go. For now, they''re waiting and watching. 


A former legislature and state insurance commissioner, Cope served on the Levee Board, a regional organization based in Greenville that helps maintain levees and coordinates local response during times of flooding. 


Peter Nimrod, chief engineer of the Levee Board, said Friday afternoon the Mississippi itself shouldn''t be a problem. The river is expected to crest at 65.4 feet in Greenville May 15. The levees there are built to handle water to 72 feet. 


Though the river is 3-1/2 feet above the 100-year high, Nimrod says the expected high point will be about a foot lower than the ''27 crest. That flood inundated 27,000 square miles, an area the size of Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire and Vermont combined. Since then levees along the Mississippi have been strengthened and raised 10 to 12 feet. 


The big question mark, he says, are the levees on Yazoo River. All the water in the Delta flows into the Yazoo by way of the Sunflower River and Steele Bayou. The Yazoo then flows into the Mississippi just above Vicksburg. 


In its rush to the Gulf, the swollen Mississippi has backed up and is flooding its non-gated tributaries, the Yazoo River being one of them. So, not only is the Yazoo basin draining water from heavy rainfalls; it is also receiving an inflow from the Mississippi. 


Nimrod says the Yazoo will overtop its levees beginning on May 15, and like an overflowing commode, the water will run for eight days, flooding all lands below 95 feet in elevation. He estimates about 280,000 acres will be flooded, 100,000 of that farmland. 


That''s a best case scenario. If the waters of the Yazoo tear away the levee as they rush over it, much of the lower Delta would be flooded. If that happened, waters could rise to 106 feet; 1.2 million acres would be flooded; towns and thousands of homes would be swamped. 


"It would be a hideous thing," said Nimrod. 


Cope says his son has ankle-high soybeans, knee-high corn and the rice is started. 


"He''s already got 85 percent of his cost in this year''s crop," he said. "If you''ve already sold your crop, you''re going to pay for it twice," he said about farmers who are flooded. 


Nimrod says visqueen is being put across the tops of the Yazoo levees to help prevent washouts. At the earliest, it will be the end of June before the waters recede. 


"I''d love to see no more rain for three more weeks," Nimrod says, "not only in Mississippi, but the Ohio Valley as well." 


As for the Copes, they are faced with a dilemma. If they stay in their home until the levee breaks, it will be too late; they will be stranded. DeLoach Cope says he hasn''t made up his mind what the triggering event will be, what will cause him and his wife to flee their home for higher ground. 


"Everybody is in the same boat as I am," he said. 


For DeLoach Cope, and many like him in the Delta, this is going to be a tense week. And while the idea of billy goats and chickens on top of houses is a charming one, we can only hope it''s a scene he won''t have to witness again.


Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.


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