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After the 1979 Easter Flood

The rain began in this Mississippi city on April 12, Maundy Thursday, at one point dumping four inches of water in a single hour. By Friday the skies had begun to clear, but by then the Pearl River was rising steadily with floodwaters from upstream. It soon overflowed its banks and began spreading water over the low-lying eastern sections of Jackson. On Monday, the day after Easter, the river finally crested and the waters began their slow retreat. Jackson was only one of several Mississippi cities hit by the flood. In all, 20,000 people had to be evacuated from their homes.

A visitor driving into Jackson on Interstate 20 sees only a sleepy brown stream where a murderous torrent flowed two weeks before. But the tall trees alongside the highway offer stark evidence that the flood did pass this way: the bottom 10 or 12 feet of each tree are gtripped of most branches, and the few left are brown and encrusted with mud. Halfway up, the trees burst into bright green color, leaves that escaped the ravages.

To see the worst of what the flood wreaked on Jackson, one has to visit the poorest, blackest section of town, an area in south Jackson known by its inhabitants as Doodleville. Here the houses are stained with mud as high as three and four feet off the ground. Ruined furniture, rugs and assorted debris litter the yards. A few of the residents have moved back into their homes. Others are only beginning to clean up and repair the damage. Most are used to dealing with such calamities: the Pearl River floods Doodleville every few years, though not as badly as this time. This was the first flood to hit the affluent white areas along the river, in the northeast section of Jackson and in a suburb called Flowood. In these neighborhoods, the flood's effects look more capricious. On one street, a gentle slope kept the houses on one side out of reach of the water, while those directly across were swamped. The local news coverage focused mostly on how the flood affected these parts of Jackson. "You would have thought only white homeowners got flooded," says L. C. Dorsey, a black woman who lives near Doodleville. "Blacks from other parts of town called and said, 'Y'all must not have gotten it this time."'

The news coverage isn't all Jackson's blacks are upset about. The Red Cross, which ran three emergency shelters for flood victims, has been the villain in several different rumors suggesting racial discrimination. One story is that it deliberately segregated the shelters. The Red Cross says that people simply went to the nearest shelter, and that the segregated shelters simply reflected Jackson's segregated neighborhoods. At the black shelter, housed in the West Capitol Boys Club, only one white family showed up, and it left the next day. The Red Cross says the white family went to the shelter on its own and left on its own, without prodding from anyone. Another rumor held that the Red Cross was bouncing whites in hotels, which helped to explain why the two white shelters were able to close nearly a week before the Boys Club shelter. AI Panico, a regional Red Cross official who is running the disaster program, says the Red Cross didn't put anyone up in a hotel. "A lot of white people, and some black people, went out on their own and moved into motels, but we didn't have anything to do with it," be says. The black shelter, be says, bad to stay open longer because it housed some of the poorest people who had nowhere else to go. Panico says he doesn't doubt that there were instances where white volunteers at the Boys Club shelter were rude or insensitive. "A shelter is an unnatural, unpleasant place to be, and people get short-tempered, whether they're working there or staying there," he says. One federal disaster official, the closest thing I could find to an impartial and informed observer, says he's seen no sign of discrimination by the Red Cross.

The wide currency given these rumors among Jackson's blacks suggests more about the state of race relations in this city than it does about the Red Cross. The tension between whites and blacks dealing with each other in the wake of a disaster shows how easily the appearance of racial harmony breaks down under pressure. But apparently in Jackson—a city of 350,000 people—even the appearance of racial harmony is still an elusive prospect. Rims Barber, a white community activist, says a Mennonite group was refused permission to operate a volunteer project in a Baptist church because it wouldn't promise to keep blacks out

Jackson's blacks naturally tend to see discrimination even when there is none. They understandably resent being ignored by the Jackson business and government establishments, particularly when disaster strikes. On April 29, the Hinds County board of supervisors met to decide how to spend one million dollars in community development money from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Several citizens showed up to urge that the money be used in rebuilding the neighborhoods hit by the flood. The supervisors voted to spend the money to expand the local football stadium.

That same day. Circuit Court judge Dan Lee, whose home was flooded, appeared at a meeting of the local water supply district to threaten a grand jury investigation of the operation of the Ross Barnet Reservoir near Jackson. Lee complained that the board had kept the level of water in the reservoir higher than it should be in order to promote recreational use (mostly by the affluent whites who live around it), thus making it useless for flood control, one of its original purposes. When one member of the water district board replied that the main purpose of the reservoir was not flood control but water supply. Lee retorted, "Not one drop of water for Jackson has ever come out of that reservoir." Lewis Armstrong, a black official with the county Human Resources Agency, says at the time of the flood the reservoir was even higher than usual to accommodate a bass fishing contest. "But I guess all the bass got away," he says with undisguised glee.