In the spring of 1927, after weeks of incessant rains, the Mississippi River went on a rampage. Racing south from Cairo, Illinois, the river blew away levee after levee, inundating thousands of farms and hundreds of towns, killing as many as a thousand people and leaving nearly a million homeless. By the time it reached New Orleans, the flood had not only altered the landscape of 27,000 square miles-an area the size of four New England States-it had widened the abyss of race relations in the Deep South.
Fatal Flood focuses on the devastating impact the flood wrought on the Delta community of Greenville, Mississippi. One of the most productive cotton producing areas of the country, the Delta was largely populated by poor black share croppers and presided over by self-styled planter aristocrats who ruled their fiefdoms like feudal lords. It was a deplorably exploitative system in which white landowners made easy fortunes and black laborers could barely afford to put food on their tables. LeRoy Percy was among the most powerful of these cotton "kings." But unlike his neighbors the former U.S. Senator professed to be a defender of his African American tenant farmers. Again and again, he argued the best way to keep blacks in the South was to treat them fairly. The flood tested the limits of his compassion and exposed the extent of his greed. Faced with the possible loss of his empire, the disaster also led him to betray his son.
On April 21, 1927, the levee broke near Mounds Landing, releasing a deluge through the cotton fields of Washington County. Within hours the cascade had reached Greenville, inundating the city. Will Percy, LeRoy's son, was charged with overseeing Greenville's relief efforts. With the city's water supply contaminated, its food supply destroyed and no sanitation facilities, Will had just one honorable course: he authorized the evacuation of the area's black residents. Even though he knew of the dangers facing the displaced black population, LeRoy Percy was worried about the impact of a black exodus on his cotton plantations. Behind the scenes he thwarted his son's evacuation plan.
In the days that followed, racial tensions in Greenville reached boiling point. When relief supplies finally reached the city, they were distributed on the basis of race. Frequently African Americans were left with nothing. At the same time black men were rounded up and forced to work rebuilding the levee. After a white policeman killed an African American for refusing to work a double shift, Will Percy told a meeting of blacks, "That foolish policeman is not the murderer. The murderer is you." The younger Percy was finding out what other white Southerners already knew: If you're going to keep your heel on the neck of those who work for you, you can't pretend to be nice about it.
African Americans reacted to the flood of 1927 by severing their ties with the planters of the Delta who had treated them so badly during the disaster. As the Mississippi River retreated, tens of thousands of sharecroppers began migrating to Northern cities. The exodus LeRoy Percy had feared so long could not be stopped.
In addition to some remarkable archival footage of the flood and its aftermath, producer Chana Gazit (Surviving the Dust Bowl, Three Mile Island) has incorporated into this powerful film some extraordinary interviews with former Greenville residents. One interviewee describes a plantation owner who carried a bullwhip to beat backs who didn't get out of his way. Another man, barely in his teens at the time, describes rescuing a pregnant African American woman from the roof of her home. Seventy years later he weeps as he remembers his fear and awe at helping her give birth in his little boat.
Ultimately, Fatal Flood is much more than a chronicle of one of America's greatest natural disasters; it's a dramatic story of politics, race, and honor, one that marks the end of an era and the beginning of another.