Easter 1979 was tragic and blessed

Published 12:00 am Saturday, April 3, 2010

It was difficult to find a church to attend on Easter Sunday 1979 in Jackson, Miss.

That’s because much of the city was under water, and churches throughout the city canceled services. The dam on the Ross Barnett Reservoir was opened due to heavy rains up north, and the Pearl River couldn’t handle the vast amount of water rushing in. The river left its banks on Good Friday – Friday the 13th, to be exact – and by late that evening Jackson was a disaster area.

I was a junior in high school that year, living with my parents in a nice, middle-class subdivision in the northeast part of town. I went shopping for an Easter dress that morning then to the hospital to visit a classmate who’d been seriously injured in an automobile accident. The sun was out; it was a nice, spring day.

My parents knew my schedule, so I didn’t bother checking in. Little did I know the river was rising fast, and life as we knew it was about to change.

Even when I got close to my house that afternoon I didn’t know what was coming. We’d had some flooding problems before – water in the streets, and we’d had to park our cars up the block and wade home. So I parked the car, jumped out with shopping bag in hand and hiked my skirt up as I waded through the water.

Then I saw the moving van and half of my high school’s basketball team loading our furniture on it. There was no water in our house, but forecasters predicted this time it would happen. So my dad and a neighbor found what was likely the last rental truck in Jackson, then my dad picked my mom up from work and rounded up the boys from a pickup basketball game at school.

The gang got as much as they could on the truck and put as much of the rest of our stuff as possible on high shelves throughout the house. We watched as the water continued to rise. Our back yard became a lake; the ditch that ran behind the house was not visible.

The water lines in the driveway kept inching upward; you could literally see the water moving in. The truck got out when it could, as did my friends. And as darkness crept in and the water continued to rise, rescue workers paddled their boat under our carport and my mom and I rode away.

My dad stayed behind, still working at our home then moving on to help a neighbor. When he finally left our house and moved to higher ground, water was lapping the countertops.

The next morning my dad and some family friends took their boat and went back into the house to try and recover some more of our belongings. But it was just about too late. By Easter Sunday all any of us could do was stand at the neighborhood’s entrance – more than a half mile from my home and quite a bit higher – and stare at the rooftops protruding through the river.

Water stayed in our home, just 6 inches shy of our attic, for a week. It stayed inside many homes, churches, businesses – even downtown Jackson – for that long, too. It was a tragic time in Jackson, and many people were financially ruined.

But it was a blessed time, too. It was a time when neighbors helped neighbors and strangers helped strangers. It was a time when all races and nationalities came together as one to rebuild homes, businesses and lives. It was a time people who had never needed a handout before took one time and time again with genuine gratitude instead of stubborn resistance. It was a time when churches went throughout the city and ministered to everyone touched by the disaster, not only to their own congregations inside their own blessed sanctuaries.

It was a time when barriers were down, pride was put aside and humans were humbled before each other and before God.

There were no church services for us to attend that Easter Sunday. But through it all God’s greatest message was delivered time and time again. Easter 1979 in Jackson, Miss., was a time of great sorrow.

But more so, the Easter season of 1979 was a time of faith, hope and, most of all, love.

Sandy Cunningham is publisher of L’Observateur. She can be reached at sandy.cunningham@ wickcommunications.com.