A Tale of Two Floods

[16 minute read]

This story is inspired by true historical events.

The steamboat whistle sliced through the early morning fog as it announced our arrival at the Mounds Landing levee in Greenville, Mississippi. The media called this post-war decade the roaring twenties, but the only thing roaring in Mississippi was the flood water. 

Nothing could have prepared me for the devastating landscape of the levee on that spring morning — blanketed by debris and thousands of slumbering people of color. The flood refugees were sprawled in all directions for a stretch of several miles, with the lucky few sleeping in small tents made of quilts. Awakened by the whistle blast, they began stirring in their soggy earthen beds.

Stranded vehicles, now mostly submerged, were scattered around the levee. The bloated carcasses of horses and cows floated in the water like buoys, occasionally bumping into the steamboat with a sickening thud. The overwhelming stench of death and human waste washed over me, nearly causing me to vomit. 

Once the steamboat anchored, we waited for locally owned boats to arrive — they were commissioned to transport Red Cross supplies and nurses to tent cities constructed on higher ground as temporary housing for white residents. Refugees from the levee loaded the boats under the supervision of armed guards to ensure they didn’t steal the supplies. 

Alice, a fellow Red Cross nurse who was also recruited from New York City, appeared at my side. 

“Why haven’t these people been evacuated to a tent city?” I said while I watched the ailing refugees struggle to load the boats.

“We’re in the south now. Things are different here.” Alice said. “White people were evacuated first. Rumor has it, the local plantations didn’t want to lose their laborers so they’re forcing these refugees to stay on the levee. They keep finding ways to enslave these poor people. So much for emancipation.”

The mention of slavery conjured up childhood memories — curling up in my grandmother’s lap in her rocking chair, listening to stories of her Quaker parents harboring runaway slaves along the Underground Railroad. My grandmother was only a teenager at the time, but she learned a lifetime of lessons from each bold soul that found respite in her home, just one of many stations on their journey to freedom. Each encounter with a runaway added another brush stroke to her evolving view of the world — an emaciated man named Henry who shed silent tears as he savored a slice of my great-grandmother’s freshly baked bread, a glimpse of another man’s back, covered in crisscrossed scars from his tormentor’s whip, as he changed into a cotton shirt hand laundered by my grandmother. She carried their stories in her heart and passed them down, instilling a spirit of humanitarianism for generations to come. 

“What good is it to keep these people trapped here if they die of starvation and sickness?” I said, channeling my grandmother.

“Well, that’s why we’re here, right?” Alice said.

This wasn’t what I envisioned when I joined the Red Cross public health nursing program. I would never have imagined that I, a rookie nurse from New York City, would be dispatched to Mississippi to provide relief for the worst natural disaster in the nation’s history. Being at the bottom of the nurse totem pole, I was stationed on the levee. I disembarked the steamboat and discovered that matters were much worse than I expected. 

Thousands of refugees crowded onto the levee which was less than ten feet wide. The corpses of people who were too old or sick to withstand the conditions lay on the ground. Nobody knew what to do with their bodies — shoving them into the flood water like dead livestock and thus denying them a proper burial felt wrong, not to mention it would further contaminate the water. So, the refugees gently closed their vacant eyes, crossed their arms over their chests in a funeral pose, and gingerly stepped over them as they moved about on the levee. 

It didn’t take long for the refugees to notice my uniform and flock around me, begging for food, water, and medical assistance. The desperation in their eyes burned a hole in my soul. 

I shouted as loud as I could, “Excuse me, everyone. If I could have your attention, please.” Once the clamor dwindled, I continued, “I know you’re hungry and thirsty, and many of you need medical attention. I’m going to help you the best I can with the resources available. Speaking of resources…tomorrow morning, once the supplies have been distributed in the tent city, the surplus will be divvied up amongst all of you here.” I paused, bracing for an outcry, but the refugees simply looked dejected as they were yet again subjected to the white man’s castoffs. 

I continued, hoping I could give them a sense of hope by spurring them into action.

“In the meantime, I need volunteers to dig latrine pits. Keeping urine and feces contained will help us minimize illness. I also need some of you to break down any wood you can find, so we can build fires for boiling water to make it safe for drinking. I have a stash of matches we can use. I also obtained some empty soup cans on the steamboat which we can use as makeshift pots for boiling the flood water. Alright, let’s get started.”

While the refugees worked on their assignments, I began the monumental task of medical triage with help from the other nurses. Due to contaminated drinking water and the absence of sanitation facilities, Typhoid Fever and Cholera were rampant, plaguing many refugees with symptoms of severe diarrhea, dehydration, high fevers, and abdominal pain. 

It amazed me how quickly the shock of the situation wore off once I took action. I paused, surveyed my surroundings like a medic on the battlefield, and said a silent prayer.

By midday, the digging of latrine pits was well underway and smoke was rising from a few small fires. I watched as refugees passed soup cans around, sipping and savoring the boiled water like it was fine wine. Food was scarce on the levee. My stomach groaned with hunger after just a few hours without a morsel to eat — I could only imagine how the hollow-bellied refugees felt.

Hours later the energy faded from my body like the sunset, reflected in the flood water, as it dissolved into dusk. The refugees hunkered down for the night and we watched as stars slowly dotted the night sky. As the spring air cooled, some of them gathered around the fires scattered across the levee. I gazed at their illuminated faces and reflected on the timeless allure of the primal element of fire and the solace it provides.

In the distance, a few refugees began singing. The tune spread over the levee like a wildfire carrying thousands of voices like floating embers up to the heavens.

“Nobody knows the trouble I’ve been through. Nobody knows my sorrow. Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen. Glory hallelujah….”

Tears trickled down my face as quiet settled over the levee once again only to be disrupted by an incoming boat. Upon arrival, the boater held a lantern up to his face revealing that he was merely a teenager.

“I’m here to pick up the Red Cross nurses and take them to the tent city for the night.” He shouted. “If you’re a nurse, please come aboard.”

Alice, myself, and the handful of other nurses weaved through the tightly packed refugees. I felt the weight of thousands of eyes watching us longingly as we boarded the small vessel that would take us to the promised land — yet the weight of my guilt felt heavier. 

I need to nourish myself so I can maintain the strength to nourish others, I thought, trying to justify this inequity.

The firelight and staring eyes faded into the distance and I turned my attention to the young boatman.

“You seem a little young to be out here by yourself in the middle of the night,” I said. “What’s your name, kid?”

“John Tigrett, at your service. Nice to meet you, ma’am.” He shook my hand without taking his eyes off the route ahead.

“Ma’am? How old do you think I am? Please, call me Mary.”

“Believe it or not, I’m a boat rescue captain.” He said, glancing at me to see if I was impressed. “Anyone who owns a boat was called into service. Lots of folks have been stranded on rooftops and whatnot, so each captain was assigned a search and rescue route. We pick people up and deliver ‘em to the levee or the tent city. I volunteered for this extra route, taking y’all to the tent city, because I ain’t got nothing better to do.” 

“Well, it’s a fine way for a young man like yourself to help your community. So, what was it like when the flood started?” 

“Thousands of us were at the levee, piling sandbags as fast as we could…but it was pointless. That river plowed through the levee like a freight train carrying men right along with it. There was ten feet of flood water in downtown Greenville by the next morning. Forests, farms, and buildings were just washed away. Some of the wealthy white folks had already left the area before the flood hit, and the ones that were left evacuated to higher ground. All the colored people were left on the levee to fend for themselves. Everybody was relieved when ol’ Herbert Hoover and you folks from the Red Cross showed up.”

We rode the rest of the way in silence. By the time we arrived at the tent city a few of the nurses had fallen asleep in the boat so I nudged them awake.

“Well, here we are. Just look for the tents with the red crosses on ‘em.” John said. “I’ll be back bright and early in the morning to take y’all and the extra supplies back to the levee.”

The juxtaposition of the primitive levee and the civilized tent city was disorienting. One flood experienced in drastically different ways, a tale of two floods.

Hundreds of canvas tents sprawled the countryside, some glowing with lantern light while others were dark with sleeping inhabitants inside. Fires crackled throughout the camp and I spotted a small group of night owls gathered around one, their pale faces shining in the firelight as they played upbeat bluegrass music. 

The Red Cross tents were equipped with two cots, blankets, wash bowls, washcloths, bar soap, lanterns, canteens full of boiled water, a pot of cooked beans and rice, and a loaf of bread. Alice and I decided to share a tent that seemed like a palace in contrast to the accommodations on the levee. Our grumbling stomachs, parched throats, and nearly bursting bladders competed for attention.

We ventured out to find the latrines with our swaying lantern lighting the path of dewy grass at our feet. We quickly spotted a tent nearby adorned with the hand-painted words, “Women’s Latrines”. Inside we were relieved to discover wooden toilets built over top of deep latrine pits like one would find in an outhouse — quite luxurious given the circumstances.

Back in our tent, we quenched our thirst and filled our bellies but forced ourselves to save half of the rations for breakfast the next morning. We took turns using the wash bowl but no matter how hard I scrubbed my skin I felt like I couldn’t wipe away the physical and emotional grime. I slipped into a clean nightgown from the suitcase I’d been lugging around all day. Sleep came quickly. In my dreams I wasn’t sleeping on a cot in a refugee camp — I was sleeping on my grandmother’s lap in her rocking chair and she was serenading me with the refugee song from the levee.

The morning reveille, blaring from a bugle in the distance, jolted us into action. We scarfed down the remaining bread, beans, and rice and stepped outside with our canteens in time to see John Tigrett’s boat pulling up. 

“Good morning, ma’am,” John said with a tip of his straw hat as I stepped into the boat.

He disappeared and returned moments later pulling a wagon full of supplies which he loaded into the boat before we left the comfort of the tent city. After helping us unload the supplies at the levee, John set off for his search and rescue route.

Later that morning when the distribution of supplies and medical treatment was in full swing, John Tigrett’s boat came speeding back to the levee. 

“Mary!” He shouted frantically. “I need your help!”

I ran to the edge of the levee where his boat was idling. 

“Oh, dear God…is that a —” I said in disbelief.

“A baby! Yes, ma’am, it’s a baby.”

A haggard black woman was sprawled on her back inside the boat like a wilted flower. Her disheveled cotton nightgown was covered in blood and there, resting against her chest was a newborn baby boy. His umbilical cord, still tethered to his belly, coiled inside the boat like a sailor’s rope and ended in a bloody mass, the placenta.

“But how…”

“I was cruisin’ along my route and spotted her on the roof of a church. I didn’t realize she was pregnant until I got close enough for her to climb into the boat. Then she said, ‘‘Fore God, my baby’s coming.’ I asked if she could just wait about forty minutes until we got to the levee and she said, ‘No, he’s comin’ now.’ The next thing I knew…out he came…right into my hands. He was covered in afterbirth so I dipped him into the river, smacked his back a few times, and he finally let out a big ol’ wail. Then she clutched him to her chest and…well…here we are.” He turned his head to wipe a tear from his cheek. “You can help ‘em, right?”

My mind was racing. My training barely covered the basics of postpartum care and certainly didn’t prepare me for an extreme scenario such as this one. But I did know one thing for sure, this woman and her baby could not survive on the levee.

I patted John on the shoulder and said, “You did good, John. Now, I’m going to need your help.”

I stayed in the boat to monitor the woman and her baby while John and others cleared some space on the levee and relocated a latrine tent to the small clearing. They lined the ground with quilts inside the tent.

“What’s your name, ma’am?” I asked the woman.

“Hanna,” she said weakly. 

“I’m Nurse Mary and I’m here to help you. That little boy you’re holding is lucky to have a strong mama like you, Hanna.”

John returned to the boat. We helped Hanna stand up and while John steadied her, I pulled up the bottom of her nightgown to make a cradle for the placenta. With John supporting Hanna, Hanna carrying the baby, and me keeping the placenta secured in her nightgown we slowly made our way to the tent. I pulled John aside while Hanna attempted to make herself and the baby comfortable on the quilt-lined ground.

“They can’t stay here, John,” I whispered. 

“Well, what are we supposed to do?” He asked searching my eyes for answers.

“I have an idea. Bring your boat back here late tonight…wait until everyone is asleep. Bring a lantern and some big blankets. I’ll stay here instead of going to the tent city when you take the other nurses there this evening. I’ll say that I’m staying to monitor Hanna and the baby. When you come back, we’ll hide Hanna and the baby under the blankets in the boat and sneak them into my tent in the tent city. I’ll keep them hidden there until the flood recedes so I can make sure they have access to better supplies and living conditions.”

“I don’t know…that seems pretty risky…”

“We’re not doing anything illegal here. This isn’t the Underground Railroad. Hanna and her baby have as much of a right to be in the tent city as anyone else does. Unfortunately, people in your community disagree so we have to be sneaky.”

“Excuse me?” Hanna called from inside the tent to get our attention. As we poked our heads back inside the tent she said, “What’s your name young man?”

“John. John Tigrett, ma’am.”

She shifted her gaze to the baby sleeping beside her and said, “Well, then I’m going to name him John. Because if it wasn’t for you, he might not be here.”

A moment of profound silence passed between the four of us interrupted only by the tent gently flapping in the breeze.

With a quavering voice, John said, “It was my honor, ma’am.” Then he stepped out of the tent and I followed. “You’re right, Mary. They can’t stay here. I’ll be back tonight.”

Tending to Hanna and Baby John kept me busy for most of the day. We could’ve left the umbilical cord and placenta attached to fall away on their own within a few weeks but the risk of infection in these conditions was too great. Luckily, we had a few medical kits containing scalpels so I cut the umbilical cord and tied a knot in the end to stop the bleeding. I helped Hanna cleanse her tender body with some boiled water and scrounged up a clean nightgown for her to change into while making a mental note to collect cotton rags to fashion into makeshift diapers for the baby. I offered Hanna what little guidance I could on breastfeeding based on what I’d read in nursing textbooks — to our collective relief, Baby John was a natural at it which would be critical for his survival in these circumstances. Some of the refugees, aware of Hanna’s plight, sacrificed their rations of rice and bread for her which she accepted with tears of gratitude glistening on her face.

Around midday, I confided in Alice about the plan to sneak Hanna and Baby John into the tent city and she swore allegiance to the scheme.

I was jostled awake in the middle of the night by Captain John inside Hanna’s tent where I’d fallen asleep on the ground. Within minutes, adrenaline was coursing through my body as we escorted Hanna and Baby John to the boat and covered them with blankets. We rode in silence to the tent city, guided by the light of a full moon, with the boat slicing through the flood water and tension in the atmosphere.

Captain John wisely equipped the boat with two oars. As we approached the tent city, he killed the motor and we paddled the boat the rest of the way to avoid drawing attention. He quietly slipped the anchor into the dark water and we paused, unintentionally holding our breath while we scanned the tent city for any sign of life besides the sputtering fires.

The coast was clear so we silently cloaked Hanna and Baby John in blankets and disembarked the boat, relying on the moonlight to guide us. As we turned to help Hanna step out of the boat, Baby John awakened and cried out. We froze like statues while Hanna rocked and shushed the baby who quickly settled once again. We glanced around with darting eyes, relieved to discover that we hadn’t caused a noticeable disturbance.

We proceeded slowly toward my Red Cross tent. We were about halfway there when something stopped us in our tracks yet again — the door of a nearby tent flapped open and a woman emerged with her young daughter carrying a lantern. They had just started walking in the direction of a latrine tent when they spotted us.

“Hello? Who’s there?” The woman said while protectively shoving her daughter behind her and raising the lantern to her face to squint into the gloom.

“Stay here,” I whispered to Captain John. “Turn Hanna to face away from us and pat her back like you’re comforting her.”

I walked over to the woman who eased slightly when she noticed my nurse uniform.

“I’m sorry if we disturbed you, ma’am, we were trying to avoid that.”

She interrupted me before I could continue. “I thought I heard a baby cry a moment ago. And why are y’all sneaking around in the dark? That’s a good way to get yourself shot around here.” She peered around me trying to get a better look at Captain John and Hanna.

“John Tigrett found a woman and her newborn baby trapped on the roof of a church tonight and we’re just trying to get them settled. As I said, we were trying not to disturb anyone since it’s so late—”

“Oh, my heavens. That poor woman…God bless her.”

“Yes, she’s been through quite an ordeal as you can imagine. But rest assured that I’m going to keep her and the baby isolated in my Red Cross tent. They’ll be in good hands.”

The woman went on about her business allowing us to get Hanna and Baby John settled on my cot in the tent.

Rumors of the midnight stork delivery spread through the tent city like disease on the levee. Everyone wanted to see the miraculous baby and his brave mother who had given birth amid the nation’s greatest natural disaster. I abandoned my post at the levee to stay with Hanna and Baby John around the clock. I kept visitors at bay by proclaiming that Hanna had experienced a traumatic event and needed privacy to heal and bond with her baby, which certainly wasn’t a lie. I became the liaison between the tent city residents and Hanna, accepting gifts of food rations and handmade baby items on her behalf.

None of us would have guessed that it would take two months for the flood water to recede. Two months was a long time to keep a woman and her newborn baby isolated in a canvas tent, although the logistics of Hanna’s situation paled in comparison at times to the deteriorating conditions on the levee. While I concerned myself with providing Hanna with a chamber pot and laundering an endless number of dirty diapers, Alice and the other nurses were faced with the inescapable problem of decomposing corpses on the levee.

Ultimately, they decided to maintain a list of names of the deceased who would be honored in a post-flood memorial service. In the meantime, some of the refugees were put to work digging a mass grave on high ground on the outskirts of town. Then they returned to the levee and loaded the decaying bodies of relatives, neighbors, and friends into boats that transported them to their final resting place where they were unceremoniously dumped into a heap like garbage.

I spent countless nights rocking Baby John while Hanna rested in my cot. As I hummed old family hymns, I stared into the dark abyss of his curious eyes and wondered what the future held for him.

When the flood water finally started receding, people gradually returned to their homes, and the tent city was dismantled. The season’s crop fields were ruined leaving little work available for black sharecroppers besides repairing the levee. With racial tensions at an all-time high, many refugees migrated north for better work and more equality.

When the time came for me to board a train for New York City, I carried with me a new worldview, a lifetime’s worth of nursing experience, and a deep appreciation for the simple blessings in life.

I stared at the woman sitting next to me, holding a sleeping baby in her arms as she gazed out of the train window watching life as she knew it whirring past. Hanna and Baby John, two human beings I sojourned with in a tent surrounded by flood water — I carried them with me too as we embarked on this new journey together, one full of hope and redemption.

Want to brighten my day? Leave a comment below to share your feedback on this story!

Copyright © Jamie Gregory 2022

Want to learn more about the historical events that inspired this story? Watch the PBS American Experience documentary titled, Fatal Flood.


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