Down in the flood: Recent heavy rains bring back memories of storms of ‘61, ‘74

By KEITH BALL,

The recent post-Christmas floods in the Pine Belt are a reminder of the powerful force of water. Water is necessary for all life on this planet, but it has great destructive power. 

In the form of floods, water covers normally dry land, causing millions of dollars of property damage and poses a threat to people, pets, and livestock. 

Living in the Petal/Hattiesburg area brings with it the risk for the occasional flood by the Leaf River, Bouie River, and the numerous creeks and tributaries across the area. 

The proximity to those rivers was likely the reason that the area was first settled by Choctaws, and they provide excellent recreational and fishing opportunities today, but they also mean flooding from time to time. 

The first area flood that I can clearly remember was the 1990 flood. 

I remember visiting my grandparents on Williams Street in Petal, located on Green’s Creek, during the flood. 

The creek was way out of its banks and nearby the wooded land on the other side of the creek was covered in brown muddy rushing water. 

Many local roads were closed and many houses in their neighborhood flooded. 

That time the Leaf River crested at around 29 feet. Although the 1990 flood was big, it was not the largest recorded area flood. 

Pine Belt residents of my grandparents’ generation remember the 1961 flood. 

Between February 16-25, 1961, the area experienced an extreme amount of rainfall. Much of the Petal community and Hattiesburg was covered in water. 

Residential, commercial, and agricultural properties were damaged. Winter crops were destroyed. Blocked railways caused something of a national transportation crises. 

The Leaf River crested at a then-record 31.53 feet. (The USGS has operated a gaging station on the Leaf River near the Highway 11 Petal-Hattiesburg Bridge since 1905.) 

One of the legacies of this flood was a shift in many Hattiesburg business locations. 

After the 1961 flood, many downtown Hattiesburg businesses decided to rebuild on the slightly higher land to the south along Broadway Drive.  

The largest recorded flood in the Petal and Hattiesburg area was the 1974 flood. 

It is the flood by which all other area floods are compared. The Leaf River crested at 34.03 feet, breaking the record set 13 years earlier.

The area received a tremendous amount of rain in four days, from April 12-16, 1974. Areas further north, near the headwaters of the Leaf River, received nearly 20 inches in just 36 hours. 

My dad tells the story of riding his bicycle to a spot overlooking the junk car lots on Highway 11 in Petal and watching the rising floodwaters quickly engulfing the cars. 

It is estimated that more than six square miles in the city of Hattiesburg alone were  inundated and more than 6,000 people had to be evacuated. 

One interesting footnote to the 1974 flood was that it resulted in a presidential visit to the state. 

President Richard M. Nixon visited Jackson (which had also experienced heavy flooding) on April 25, 1974. 

Nixon spoke to a crowd of nearly 10,000 in the Mississippi Coliseum. The President spoke to the crowd about the flood and also used it as rally against impeachment. 

A New York Times article a day later called the event the “largest and most enthusiastic public reception Mr. Nixon has received in his public campaign against impeachment.” 

The aftermath of the 1974 flood saw changes too. Some Hattiesburg businesses continued to move south or west along Hardy Street. 

Riprap and bedding materials were installed at Leaf River bridges, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began a project (finished in 1978) to rechannel a 2.5 mile stretch of Gordon’s Creek. 

In 2012, the city of Hattiesburg erected a memorial in Chain Park to the 1974 flood. 

Beside the memorial is a flag pole marked with a line showing the 34.03 foot flood waterline. 

I hope that we never see another flood big enough to require a higher mark on that flag pole. 

 

Keith Ball a graduate of Petal High School, USM, and Ole Miss Law. He is an attorney and lifelong resident of Petal.

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