40 years later, locals remember the Great Flood of 1979
Mayor, governor, Bell employee, family recall one of the worst disasters in Mississippi history
JACKSON, MS (WLBT) - On April 17, 1979, the Pearl River reached its highest level ever recorded in Jackson. Homes and businesses from northeast Jackson to downtown were swamped by the area’s worst disaster since the Civil War.
Glenda Barner began a 30-year career with the phone company in the midst of the disaster. Her first day of work at South Central Bell was April 16 in the old Deposit Guaranty building at the corner of Capitol and Lamar streets.
“The water was rising, and we saw it on the news," she recalls. “I didn’t know how it would affect me, but I got a call the day before to report to work, and my instructions were to go to the Veterans Memorial Stadium, and they would have buses waiting there to bring us downtown. Once we got downtown, we unloaded at the back of the Governor’s Mansion on Amite Street. There were people lined up there with bass boats to take us to the different entrances to get us to work.”
On that first day at the office, she stepped out of one of those fishing boats and into the Lamar Street entrance to the building. That routine continued for about a week, until the water had receded from downtown.
“I was just glad to be going to a job,” she says. “A good job.”
Phone-company employees like Barner and those who worked for the electric company and the city were considered essential personnel and were the only ones allowed downtown.
The nightmare had begun just days before, on Friday the 13th.
“I never will forget I was shaving on April 13th of 1979, and I get this telephone call from the director of the Emergency Operations Center for the city of Jackson,” recalls Dale Danks, Jr., who served as mayor of Jackson from 1977 to 1989.
"He said, ‘Well, they tell us we’re going to have a flood.’ And I said, ‘A flood?’ Because the sun was shining, it was a beautiful day, and I just couldn’t bring myself to really be too concerned about it at that point.”
For Jackson, the rain had already come and gone, but all the rain that had fallen upriver was on its way down the Pearl.
Danks went to see Governor Cliff Finch at the Capitol to apprise him of the situation. They and others in leadership positions called a news conference that afternoon to inform the public of what could be coming.
Managers at the Ross Barnett Reservoir, dealing with massive inflow from the upper Pearl River, made regular adjustments to the spillway gates to release the water downriver. As a result, the water level continued to rise in Jackson, where it started creeping into homes in northeast Jackson by Saturday the 14th.
“It was a strange feeling to get in a boat with an outboard motor on the back of it and go through the neighborhoods, particularly in northeast Jackson and in south Jackson, and ride where you would usually ride in a car -- but you were in a boat," recalls Danks.
Town Creek, which runs through downtown before emptying into the Pearl, backed up and began threatening businesses.
“I closed downtown except for emergency people,” Danks says. “Some of the businesses downtown didn’t much like it to begin with, but when they actually saw the results of the rain and the flooding in the downtown area, then they were able to understand it a little better.”
Sam and Lamia Dabit lived on Meadow Oaks Park Drive, south of Westbrook Road, in 1979, and they still live there today. Their story was featured in a book about the flood, The Great Flood, that came out later that year. Like nearly everyone else in the neighborhood, they never imagined the water would get so high.
“I never thought it would come to the house," Lamia Dabit recalls. "Never.” Her husband said their house sits higher than many of the others in the neighborhood.
“That’s why we thought we’d never have the water,” he says.
When the water covered their street, just to be safe, the Dabits and their three children left in their van for Greenville. They left their new Buick parked in the garage, certain it would be safe.
A few days later, a neighbor with a boat called with the shocking news. Water was nearly up to their roof.
“I said ‘No! Not on the top of my house!’" Lamia Dabit recalls. “She said ‘Yes, your house and my house and everybody’s house in the area is under water.’ I kept denying it.”
Their neighborhood and the surrounding area east of Old Canton Road got the worst of it. Only the roofs of homes on River Road, River Glen, Cypress Trail, Foxboro Road, Deer Trail, and parts of North Canton Club Circle were visible. Homes in the lower part of the Jackson Country Club were flooded, along with the golf course.
Jackson Academy, Sheffield Drive, and the I-55 Kroger also were flooded when Hanging Moss Creek backed up. Parts of Lakeland Drive were under water, along with the Quarter shopping center and Jackson Prep. Low sections of the Eastover subdivision also flooded.
A system of levees had been built in the ’60s to keep the city dry, but there was constant concern about whether they would hold -- or if the water might rise high enough to spill over.
A young Hinds County sheriff’s deputy named Phil Bryant, the future governor, got a call from downtown.
“A dispatcher from the sheriff’s department called and said the sheriff wants you to go check out the levee," Bryant recalls. “I argued a little bit and said, you know, that levee’s going to be fine. That water’s never going to get over that levee.”
But what the young deputy, then in his 20s, felt under his boots changed his mind.
“(It was) like a sponge. I just sank into it. And it was just saturated with water."
“I immediately called the dispatcher and said you need to get everybody 10-8 (in service). This is going to be bad.”
Despite efforts to fortify the levees with dirt and sandbags, the water soon found its way over at the lowest point near Fortification Street. It poured over I-55 and on toward the fairgrounds, inundating the Coliseum and the buildings around it. Eventually, the water was the same height on both sides – the ribbon of levees barely visible.
Danks says the era’s methods for measuring upriver rainfall and predicting crests downriver were sorely lacking, resulting in tense uncertainty about how high the river would rise and when it would stop. The crest finally came on the afternoon of April 17, when it was measured at 43.25 feet on the Jackson gauge, a new record. It would take about three days for the water to recede and retreat from people’s homes.
After the flood, much of the city was a smelly, ruined, snake-infested mess. The water line was visible on houses and other buildings for months. Heaps of ruined furniture and other waterlogged belongings were piled in front of every home and business that flooded.
Families like the Dabits lost everything and had little to no insurance. Adding to their misfortune, their clothing store on Capitol Street also flooded. Three years later, the Dabits’ home flooded again when the Pearl rose to 39.58 feet, the second-highest crest on record. They’re among a handful of residents in the neighborhood who chose to stay and rebuild again.
“I thank God we’re still around,” Sam Dabit says. “That’s all we can say. He saved us. We thank him for that. We’re still living. That’s all that matters.”
But Dabit, Danks, Bryant and Barner all hope there will never be another flood as catastrophic as 1979, even though there have been no significant flood-control measures undertaken in the 40 years since.
“It can happen again," Danks says. “It’s just a matter of when and how severe.”
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