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Can the President stop the flood?

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Redwood resident Stormy Deere needs a boat to get to her front door because of the South Delta flooding.

Among the many advocates of completing an 80-year-old plan to protect the South Delta in some flooding situations, count Senator Cyndi Hyde-Smith. Last week, the Mississippi Republican sent a letter to President Donald Trump asking for his support for both temporary and permanent help to alleviate the Great Backwater Flood, now nearing 120 consecutive days.

Floodwater has swamped 860 square miles, an area larger than the cities of New York and Los Angeles combined, the Associated Press reports.

“There is an immediate need to remove the trapped floodwaters, which can only be accomplished by pumping it from the protected side of the levee system,” Hyde-Smith wrote.

The flood, its victims and the push to complete the plan have received national media attention recently. Getting less attention is whether the old plan is viable or likely to be completed.

What’s the problem?

It’s a deadly combination. When the Mississippi and Yazoo rivers are high due to rain and snowmelt coming down from the north, it spells trouble for residents and farmers in the South Delta when heavy rainfall also happens here. Rain water that the ground can’t absorb backs up when it can’t drain into the river system.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers came up with a plan to alleviate flooding when that situation occurs, as it has many times since the disastrous floods of 1927. It completed about 75 percent of the planned construction by 1969, including levees and canals. The last part of the plan calls for a large pumping station to pump water out of the backwater even when river levels are high.

The Environmental Protection Agency stopped construction of the pumping station in 1970, and it vetoed completing the plan in 2008 under the George W. Bush administration.

“Construction and operation of the proposed pumping station would adversely impact at least 67,000 acres of wetlands and other waters of the United States,” the EPA wrote. “EPA has determined that these impacts would result in unacceptable adverse effects on fishery areas and wildlife.”

In 2004, the late Sen. John McCain of Arizona called it “one of the worst projects ever conceived by Congress.”

Today, the Corps closes floodgates to prevent the rivers flooding the region; however, when rainwater is also high, that water backs up behind the gates. Trapped within the Corps-constructed levees, the land floods.

Friday, the Corps closed floodgates again, and residents say it’s made the flooding worse.

In her letter to the president, Hyde-Smith suggested temporary pumps “to remove floodwaters until a long-term solution is constructed,” and using money from the newly passed disaster relief act to pay for them.

Hyde-Smith is among many advocates of reversing the EPA’s 2008 decision and completing the pumps to provide a permanent solution. Last April, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler told the senator that the agency is reconsidering the veto.

It’s exactly what environmentalists fear. In their opposition to the pumps—in agreement with the EPA decision—they say a humongous pumping station costing hundreds of millions would drain a complex of sensitive wetlands while mostly benefiting large farmers.

“To me, this is something of a Trojan horse to get pumps in place that would stay in place,” Melissa Samet, senior water resources counsel for the National Wildlife Federation told the AP.

The Corps has been applying engineering solutions to the mighty Mississippi River in an attempt to control its waters for decades. Samet called the multi-state system a balancing act of who floods and who is protected.

Several old studies indicate that floods would increase in areas outside the levee system, she noted, and any increase in the river levels could have disastrous affects downstream. For example, fresh water coming through a New Orleans spillway is killing seafood and marine life by decreasing salinity in sensitive estuaries.

“If you start pumping, you have winners and losers,” Samet said, and suggested it would be better to elevate homes and roads instead.

Such a solution would not alleviate issues of farmers being unable to plant their flooded fields, nor would it help residents who have to boat to their front doors. That’s what Redwood resident Stormy Deere, 44, has been doing since March.

“Emotionally, I have good days and I have bad days,” Deere told NBC News. “Some days I’m ready to go, some days I look outside and I want to despair. I want to just lie down and die. But that’s not an option.”

Can Trump Solve It?

In its near 50-year history, the EPA has only used its veto power under the Clean Water Act a dozen times. The decision to stop construction of the Yazoo pumps was one of those vetoes, and the agency did not made it lightly.

“It was a hard decision because EPA knew the area needed flood protection but our analysis of widespread environmental impacts, costs, and other complications fully justified the veto at the time,” Ben Grumbles said in a statement to NBC News. Grumbles, the former assistant administrator for water at the EPA and Maryland’s current secretary of the environment, said he “proudly signed the decision.”

The federal courts upheld the EPA veto in 2011, when the Mississippi Levee Board sued the agency.

Today, it will likely take an act of Congress to authorize construction and funding of the pumps. The estimated cost is more than $300 million.

It’s less likely that the Trump administration could successfully overturn the veto to move the old project to completion. No EPA veto has ever been overturned, and doing so will most likely lead to a long and rancourous court battle with environmentalists instead of a quick solution to the flooding.

“There are layers of reasons why this is a bad project, but worst of all is it really gives a false promise of hope to people who are suffering from flooding,” Samet told NBC. Completing the pumps would only alleviate about half of the current 550,000-acre flooding, some studies estimate.

In his statement to NBC, Grumbles said the EPA moved forward with the veto in 2008 to clear the way for federal agencies to explore new solutions.

“Alternative, nonstructural flood control measures and measures that didn’t involve the large pumps (which would drain so many wetlands) never got much traction, so the only solution at the time was to use the veto pen and commit to work with the Corps, the levee board, and impacted communities in the future on a more acceptable project,” Grumbles wrote.

Leonard Shabman, a water and environmental researcher who has worked with the Corps and the EPA on the Yazoo project since the 1980s, has produced numerous studies focused on solutions to the flooding problems in the South Delta.

Alternatives to the pumps, however, have never gained any traction. Environmentalists claim locals aren’t interested because they don’t come with juicy construction contracts benefiting a small number of Mississippians.

Regardless from which side of the debate you look, the bottom line is that nothing constructive has happened in the 11 years since the veto.

“The veto just made the thing end,” Shabman told NBC. “No one picked up an alternative. No one said, ‘What else can we do?’”

Shabman also believes there’s little the Trump administration can do to solve the flooding.

“If you look at what could be done between FEMA, EPA, USDA, the Corps and others, it’s possible you could do something that passes muster with the current authorization that would (also) pass Congress and actually get funded,” he said. “But I’m not sure there’s that much creativity in this administration.”

None of the numerous studies about the environment or any of the suggested alternatives make a difference to the farmers who are looking over flooded fields that won’t see a crop planted this year. None of it makes a difference to residents with damaged or destroyed homes. They just want this four-month flood to end. They want things back to normal.

And the politicians? They will continue to advocate for completing the project despite the roadblocks because that’s what their constituents want.

“It’s like the third rail of Mississippi politics: You have to be for the pumps,” Shabman said.

Stormy Deere has a different take.

“No one’s asking for the Delta to not flood. No one’s trying to drain wetlands. No one’s trying to kill the gnat or the pondberry bush. No one’s trying to take away the waterfowl hunting because we duck hunt, as well,” Deere told NBC. “We just want what they promised.”

(Information from the Associated Press and NBC News.)

COVID-19

Warren County reports 35 new COVID-19 cases Saturday; Mississippi reports 1,942

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New COVID-19 cases continued in double digits Saturday in Warren County with 35 cases reported.

Mississippi is reporting the 11th consecutive day of reporting more than 1,000 new cases per day, with three days of reporting more than 2,000 new cases. The state’s seven-day average of new cases is now over 1,900 per day, with 13,518 new cases reported in the last week. The highest seven-day average in July was around 1,360 for the week ending July 30.

Hospitalizations are nearing the July high of around 1,250. Unlike the July surge, however, more patients are hospitalized with confirmed cases than ever before in the state.

Nationally, the cumulative cases in the U.S. have soared to over 14.5 million. At least 2,637 people died of the virus Friday and 229,077 new cases were reported. While some progress in lowering case numbers has been seen in the Midwest recently, slowing the rate of increase across the nation, cases continue to surge almost everywhere else in the country. As expected, however, the rate of deaths continues to increase steeply, with a 42% increase just in the past two weeks. The number of people hospitalized across the nation now exceeds 101,000.

In Warren County, MSDH reported 35 new COVID-19 cases Saturday and no new deaths. The cumulative number of cases in Warren County to date is 1,930, and the county’s death toll is 59. The seven-day average of new cases in the county has risen to 23.1, more than four times higher than in early November when the average was about five cases per day.

Statewide, MSDH reported 1,942 new COVID-19 cases Saturday, bringing the total cumulative confirmed cases in Mississippi to 163,458. The seven-day average of new cases is 1,931.1 per day, about 1,174 cases higher than the seven-day average a month ago, when the state’s numbers were already on the rise. The current averages exceed the numbers seen at the height of the last surge in July.

At the beginning of the crises, the age group with the most COVID-19 cases were those over 65. Now, most new cases are seen in younger people who are more likely to survive the virus than those 65 and older. In September, the age group reporting the most cases in Mississippi were 18 to 24 years old. That has shifted to a slightly older group. In November, the age group reporting the most cases in Mississippi are from 25 to 39 years old followed by those 50 to 64 years old.

MSDH reported Saturday that 33 more Mississippians died of COVID-19 statewide. The cumulative number of deaths in the state is 3,949. The state’s rate of deaths to confirmed cases is about 2.5%. This rate has dropped as the number of cases are going up faster than the number of deaths at this time.

Deaths are a lagging indicator. While July saw the highest number of new cases since the crisis began, August saw the highest number of deaths. The highest number of deaths in any one day in Mississippi was 67 reported Aug. 25.

Of the 33 deaths MSDH reported Saturday, 24 occurred between Nov. 28 and Dec. 4 in the following counties:

County Deaths reported Saturday
Alcorn 2
Attala 1
Coahoma 2
Covington 2
Desoto 1
Forrest 2
Hinds 1
Lauderdale 1
Leflore 1
Madison 1
Marion 2
Panola 1
Pearl River 1
Pontotoc 1
Rankin 1
Winston 3
Yalobusha 1

An additional nine COVID-19 related deaths occurred between Oct. 22 and Nov. 25 and were identified from death certificate reports.

County Deaths identified from death certificate reports
Calhoun 1
Chickasaw 1
Clarke 1
Desoto 1
Hancock 1
Harrison 1
Jones 1
Lafayette 1
Tishomingo 1

New cases and deaths were reported to MSDH as of 6 p.m. Friday, Dec. 4. MSDH usually reports statistics on the COVID-19 coronavirus each day based on the previous day’s testing and death reports.

The primary metric concerning state health officials are the numbers of people hospitalized, and that number rose steadily with the rise of new cases in July and August. On June 6, the number of Mississippians hospitalized with confirmed cases of COVID-19 was at 358. Hospitalizations tripled by late July.

Hospitalizations then steadily dropped through Oct. 3 when they began rising again along with increased cases. The last week in October, hospitalizations began levelling off; however, since Nov. 4 hospitals have seen a steady rise in COVID-19 patients once again.

The number of Mississippians hospitalized for the virus as of 6 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 3, was 1,188, 99% of the late July peak of about 1,200. The number includes 1,068 with confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 120 people with suspected but unconfirmed cases. Of those with confirmed infections, 276 were critically ill and in intensive care units and 156 were on ventilators.

Source: MSDH

MSDH has estimated the number of people who can be presumed recovered from COVID-19 in Mississippi. That number is 128,746 through Sunday, Nov. 29. It represents about 78.8% of the cumulative 163,458 cases reported as of Saturday, Dec. 5.

The number of cases in Warren County three weeks ago, Saturday, Nov. 14, was 1,649, therefore the estimated number of people presumed recovered in the county is 1,590, or about 82.4% of the 1,930 cumulative cases reported as of Saturday, Dec. 5. The county has an estimated 281 active cases.

These estimates are based on MSDH’s guidelines for calculating estimated recoveries when hospitalizations are not known, using the number of cases 21 days ago, less known outcomes (deaths).

The total number of Mississippians tested for COVID-19 (PCR and antigen tests identifying current infections) as of Saturday, Nov. 28, is 1,315,279 or about 44.2% of the state’s 2.976 million residents. MSDH reports statewide test results once a week. Without daily updated numbers of tests, it is impossible to accurately calculate Mississippi’s positivity rate (positive results to tests, seven-day average); however, the estimated rate was 27.2% Friday, according to Johns Hopkins University. The national rate is 10.3%, and 5% or lower indicates adequate testing.

The total number of outbreaks in long-term care facilities is 200 Saturday, an increase of six since Friday. About 37.5%, or 1,482, of the state’s total deaths were people in long-term care facilities. The cumulative number of COVID-19 cases in LTC facilities is 8,015, less than 5% of the state’s total cases.

A total of 27 deaths in Warren County were residents of LTC facilities.

MSDH is no longer reporting outbreaks in individual long-term care facilities in Mississippi and has replaced it with access to a database from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid. You can access and search the data by provider here. The latest data available is for the week ending Nov. 22.

For additional information, visit the MSDH website.

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Events

Reindeer Run 5k brings out crowds on Catfish Row

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(photo by Keith Phillips)

Runners and their supporters braved the cold Saturday morning for the annual Reindeer Run 5k.

The event, which began at 8 a.m., is in support of Paws Rescue, a Vicksburg no-kill animal shelter.

The run began and ended at Catfish Row next to LD’s Kitchen, and was followed by a pet parade.

Organizers helped the run start off smoothly, and they had plenty of assistance from the Vicksburg Police Department and the Warren County Sheriff’s office.

(photo by Keith Phillips)

These competitors are having fun with their masks. (photo by Keith Phillips)

(photo by Keith Phillips)

Some runners came dressed up in the spirit of the season. (photo by Keith Phillips)

Santa and Mrs. Claus confer with the the reindeer. (photo by Keith Phillips)

(photo by Keith Phillips)

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News

Search on the Mississippi enters third day; volunteers asked to coordinate with law enforcement

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Search efforts are being coordinated over a wide area. (photo by Thomas Parker)

Search efforts have entered a third day for two young men missing on the Mississippi River near LeTourneau Landing.

The young men, Gunner Palmer, 16, from Copiah County, and Zeb Hughes, 21, of Wesson, Mississippi, went out on a boat Thursday with their dog to find a good spot for duck hunting near Davis Island. They have not been heard from since Thursday.

Multiple police and fire agencies in the region have responded to a request for assistance for overland search and rescue, and the effort is being coordinated over a large search area.

Private individuals who are volunteering to search must also coordinate with law enforcement to ensure public safety and to preserve any evidence. Volunteers wishing to assist should coordinate through the incident command located south of LeTourneau Landing or contact Warren County Fire Coordinator Jerry Briggs at 601-218-9911.

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Vicksburg
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Feels like: 57°F
Wind: 1mph SW
Humidity: 48%
Pressure: 30.16"Hg
UV index: 2
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