FACES OF THE FLOODS: South Delta native Tracy Harden recalls childhood floods and lingering impact

Published 4:00 am Saturday, September 17, 2022

Faces of the Floods is a series by The Vicksburg Post that tells the stories of people impacted by catastrophic floods in the Yazoo Backwater area.

Rolling Fork resident Tracy Hollins Harden carries with her memories of childhood years spent at Eagle Lake, including the fear that each spring her family would lose their home.

“Every year, we would have to keep a bag packed once the spring came around just in case the road would flood. We would leave and go stay with relatives in Vicksburg,” Harden said. “Some years, we didn’t have to leave, but it was just the not knowing; keep your valuables put together, keep your kids close and be ready to go at any time.”

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Harden also recalled that even the simplest childhood tasks became daunting — for example, the school bus ride to school transitioned from a trip on a road to a dark journey on a miles-long levee during flood season.

“We would have to leave home (to get to school) at 5:30 in the morning and travel along the long levee to get to school and in the afternoon having to travel that long levee to get back home,” she said. “As kids, that’s almost traumatizing. Being on the bus that early in the morning, on that levee and scary roads, away from your parents for that long, it was really tough.”

Harden was born not long after the 1973 Backwater flood, and grew up hearing stories from her parents about how they’d take a boat to the grocery store near their house, which was flooded out, and climb onto the roof of the store to play cards with their neighbors.

When Harden and her husband Tim got married and moved to Rolling Fork 27 years ago, she thought life would be different. Farther away from the water, she said, perhaps they’d be safe from the flood. But as the longtime owner of Chuck’s Dairy Bar soon discovered, no one in the South Delta is safe from the rising water.

As a restaurant owner, Harden said the persistent floods in the Yazoo Backwater area have impacted her business in many ways. For one, it’s been a struggle to keep the doors open during flood season.

“We have three times during the year where my business makes money that carries us throughout the year: planting season, harvest season and hunting season,” Harden said. “Without those farmers working and planting, it’s hard for us to make it.

“Every year, with the flood and also with COVID, I’ve made it a point not to cut anybody’s hours, no matter how low business got,” she added. “We’re to the point now that, if we have another flood here, we can’t keep everybody employed. The savings is gone. The business is not coming in. We won’t be able to do it again.”

Another impact Harden said she’s seen firsthand is the way flooding hurts the farmers who frequent her restaurant.

During 2019 especially, she said many farmers were left practically destitute when their land was inundated with floodwaters. Economic effects aside, she said what concerned her more was her customers’ mental health during that time and in the floods in the following year.

“One of my farmers came by for breakfast one morning, and he had tears in his eyes when I went to the window to wait on him. Instead of asking what he needed, I asked him how he was doing,” Harden said. “He said to me that all of his land was underwater, and he couldn’t afford to take care of his family, and that if he didn’t get anything done this would be his last year farming.

“This was land that had been in his family for many generations,” she added. “He got his breakfast and he was fixing to leave, and he said, ‘You won’t see me for a while. … I have to get out of town, because I can’t stand to be here.'”

Although she admits it’s difficult to revisit her personal experiences from the floods and revisit the complex emotions surrounding the issue, Harden has found herself in a position to help others throughout both the Yazoo Backwater floods and the COVID-19 pandemic, which immediately followed.

Most recently, she was invited by U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker to travel to Washington, D.C. to speak before the United States Senate about the floods and all she’s witnessed as a result. However, until it was over, Harden said she tried to keep her trip to the nation’s capital a closely guarded secret. However, her neighbors had other plans.

“I got on the plane and I left town with maybe four or five people knowing,” she said. “And I get off the plane with my phone going ‘ping, ping, ping’ and somebody’s posted that Tracy Harden is in D.C. and… y’all please watch her speak for us.”

During an Aug. 24 listening session hosted by U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker and District 2 Congressional Rep. Bennie Thompson at South Delta High School, Harden was the first person to address the delegation from D.C.

She said she didn’t plan to speak at all that night, but was overcome by the need to give her people a voice.

Harden said, aside from the traumas she carries from the floods, the one thing that comes to her mind each time the waters start to rise is the way the South Delta community unites to help one another.

“I love my town. I love my community. They’re all my people,” she said. “Getting to know them all on such a personal level, you see their hurt and you feel their hurt, and you feel it so much to the point where yours doesn’t even matter. (I was) getting up to speak for them, my parents and brothers and sisters that go through this every year still.”