A Mile Wide and an Inch Deep

In an average year, the Deep South’s annual rainy season usually starts in November and continues through February. The annual rainfall can be 50-60 inches, but since Hurricane Katrina we had been a bit on the dry side – until 2012.

The extensive year-round plant growth here requires a lot of rainfall, but when it gets too heavy at critical times of the year, the result is floods. Hattiesburg is located at the confluence of two rivers, the Bouie and the Leaf. Numbers of other rivers originate in the watershed above us: the Big Black, the Noxubee, the Yockanookany, the Okatibbee, the Tallahala, the Chickasawhay and the mighty untamed Pearl. (In case you’re wondering, this is Choctaw and Chickasawhay country.)

Since we’ve lived here (1980), there has been just one major flood — in the spring of 1983 after a winter rainy season of more than average rainfall. The Pearl flooded in Jackson, the capital, and on downriver through Columbia west of us. The other rivers brought a lot of water down, and the Bouie and the Leaf were soon running above flood stages.

Then came that terrible day when a front brought in exceptionally heavy rain that started early and stayed late, totaling about 13 inches. By the next morning it was clear that we were in for serious flooding.

Our house is less than a block from Gordon’s Creek, which was running bank full early in the day of the rain. By the next morning it had come out, running down the driveways of the houses on Short Bay Street behind us. From there it came into our backyard to the top of our porch steps. Luckily there was a small drainage ditch along the south side of our property that carried off some of the water. In addition, our house sits on piers about 3 feet off the ground.

As Gordon’s Creek flooded, it washed as far as it could downstream until it was stopped by the Leaf River, now substantially above flood stage. Dozens of families had evacuated their homes east of us, steadily passing in trucks loaded with furniture, headed for higher ground. Friends offered to help us either move furniture out or to wrap it up in huge, heavy plastic sheets.

As the result of booking a flight weeks ahead, my sister Judy from Denver flew into the Pine Belt Regional Airport. She was hoping to enjoy the early spring of the South and its azaleas and dogwood. When we picked her up and headed back to Hattiesburg, the Bouie was at the bottom of the bridge as we crossed it.

Instead of touring around looking at flowers, we finished making the furniture and other items as secure as possible. Then, ready to relax, we sat down around the card table and opened some Pepsi bottles we found in a closet.

It turned out that the bottles were filled with my father-in-law’s homemade “wine,” which was fortified with vodka. It may not have been the usual family get-together, but in times of emergency, one does the best one can!

In the meantime, other traffic increased on our street and those behind us. These folks were gawkers – curious about the plight of others. In the 1970s during a severe flood, such traffic caused water in the street to splash into houses, causing damage to personal property.

The Leaf River had risen to a point just a half block east of our front door, so we were very happy the next day when National Guard troops appeared. That day we spent making coffee and sandwiches to take out to the troops on guard, preventing unwanted street traffic. We wanted to make sure they knew how welcome they were.

The river water flooded many of those evacuated homes east of us, but did not come closer to us before it gradually started receding as the days passed. We relaxed and started removing furniture from its plastic wrapping and replacing items to their normal places.

Whenever we have those heavy winter and early spring rains, we remember the year that Judy flew into Hattiesburg to visit us during a flood. As a visitor, she had plenty of company, however, considering the local country club was hosting a big golf tournament that week!

Living in the land of rain, big rivers and high water contrasts sharply to my life on the Plains, land of low annual rainfall and sparse vegetation. In my hometown in south-central Nebraska, we lived near the Platte, the “mile wide and inch deep” river, a waterway waded by people and waterfowl alike.

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