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Our top story of 2019

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This widely distributed photo captured the essence of the flood. Water, devastation, death and an effort begun to stop it from ever happening again. (Photo by David Day)

Our top story of the year was the Great Backwater Flood of 2019.

The flood dominated the lives of thousands of people for most of the year, and the Vicksburg Daily News published almost 100 stories and videos on the flood over the many months of the disaster, including numerous stories about relief efforts and the federal response.

The flood drowned 860 square miles of land, dislocated hundreds of families, cost an estimated $12.5 billion dollars in property and crop damage and finally, maybe, caused the federal government to fund the installation of the pumps that could have prevented it all.

Fears for a flood began in September and October of 2018 as record rainfall hit Pennsylvania, and hurricanes dumped unprecedented amounts of water on the eastern seaboard. When those storms crossed the Appalachians, the water they dropped had only one place to go: the Mississippi Valley. As winter came and rainfall amounts stayed high, the Mississippi River went above flood stage in December 2018 and again in February 2019. From then on, the river wouldn’t drop below flood stage again until late summer.

Backwater flood area on June 1, 2019. (Photo from U.S. Geological Survey.)

Between the heavy rains and inundation from the river flooding, water filled up the South Delta Backwater area like a big bowl with no outlet. The flood water had no where to go, so it sat behind the Steele Bayou control structure for months on end. It trapped wildlife in small areas where it wasted away. The smell of death and decay permeated the South Delta for most of 2019.

Melissa Lum Lyons caught this photo of a starving deer on the 465 Levee.

In 1969, the federal government completed a portion of the Mississippi Rivers and Tributaries project that included the control structure at Steele Bayou. For some 40 years, the U.S. Corps of Engineers worked to alleviate flood conditions and move water from the South Delta through channels, levees and control structures to the structure at Steele Bayou. The final phase called for installing pumps that would move the water into the Yazoo River where it would flow into the Mississippi and eventually to the Gulf of Mexico.

They never finished the pumps.

Environmental groups determined the pumps would cause stress on ecosystems and endanger area wildlife. Their power and influence caused the Environmental Protection Agency to veto completing the pumps in 2008, nearly 40 years after the project was started. By not finishing the planned pumps, the prior work created a man-made flood zone of several hundred square miles.

A dilapidated house in the Backwater on July 13, 2019. (Photo by David Day)

If the pumps had been installed, the impact of the 2019 flooding would have been far less than what occurred—550,000 acres were under water for months. Parts of the area would have still flooded, but no one would have lost their home, and the amount of farmland impacted would have been less than half of the 220,000 acres lost to production this year.

The Great Backwater Flood of 2019 proved the environmental groups’ projections wrong. The fallout at the end of 2019 is that hundreds of families will never return to their homes, and small farms may not recover their losses for many years, if ever.

The federal government’s budget for 2020 includes language and funds that seem to indicate the pumps will be installed, but without a clear statement, their future remains ambiguous.

2020 is an election year, and Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith faces a strong challenge from Democrat Mike Espy. The smart money says that Hyde-Smith will use the pumps as a political tool, as she has consistently shown strong support for getting them finished.

U.S. Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith spoke with flood victims at Valley Park, Miss., last summer. (Photo by David Day)

The Vicksburg Daily News took a stand that the flood was a man made disaster early on. After reading thousands of pages of documents, it was clear the flooding would have been lessened with the pumps, and that the flooding was a direct result of the levee, channels and control structures that moved the water into the South Delta.

In July, tempers of those affected by the floods finally snapped. Things blew up when the Mississippi Wildlife Foundation told farmer Victoria Darden and the Finish the Pumps group that they would not be given a booth at the annual Wildlife Extravaganza in Jackson. Darden and company had requested a booth to present their case to the large crowd that usually attends the event.

A social media firestorm erupted, all in favor of the #finishthepumps cause. The Mississippi Wildlife Foundation’s position opposing the pumps was exposed, and many people turned against them. Vendors pulled out of the Extravaganza in support, and attendance was down dramatically.

A largely empty MWF Extravaganza space at 1:37 p.m. on Sunday afternoon. (Photo by David Day)

Victoria Darden was the center of the storm. Darden and her father operate an 1,100 acre farm near Onward, Miss., that was underwater for most of the year. She became the face of the flood and the campaign to get the pumps finished.

Jeff Terry, Victoria Darden and Richard McRae discuss the finish-the-pumps effort. (Photo by David Day)

That effort included fundraisers, meetings and interacting with every level of leadership, elected official and board involved with finishing the pumps. Darden didn’t ask for a bit of it, but she rose to the occasion and has become a champion of the cause along with farmers such as Clay Adcock, Billy Whitten and David Johnson, hunters such as Jeff Terry, and landowners and business people such as Earl and Diane Wallace.

Businesses faced the ugly side of publicly expressing a position against the pumps. The Onward Store closed soon after it became public knowledge that the owner’s husband had made a plea to government officials to not install the pumps. Local residents boycotted the business, and it quickly folded. The iconic building and property are available for sale.

The Onward Store closed its doors after a boycott from those in favor of installing the pumps. (Photo from the store’s social media page.)

Herculean efforts to organize and try to control the floodwaters turned into heroic forays into uncharted territories to keep the cause in the minds of a fickle public. Locals who would have been content to quietly farm their land and simply live their lives were pushed into a fight for survival.

Event promoter Tommy Parker and others came together to organize Flood Fest 2019. The event raised close to $30,000, every penny of which went to the United Way’s fund for flood victims.

Three of the performers at Flood Fest 2019. Left to right: Martin Pace, William Michael Morgan and Scott Randall Rhodes. (Photo by David Day)

The community rose to the challenge, and that is an important part of this story—as significant as the flood itself.

In spite of the devastating effects of the flood, the Mississippi Delta maintained its beauty, and its people showed, once again, their grit. (Photo by David Day)

Education

Alcorn State earns award for high rate of graduating student athletes

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(photo courtesy ASU)

Alcorn State University received the David M. Halbrook (traveling) trophy in the men’s division from the Mississippi Association of Colleges and Universities for its achievement in posting the highest percentage of graduating student athletes, marking the third consecutive year it has earned the distinction.

“It is an honor for Alcorn to receive the David M. Halbrook (traveling) Trophy award for the third consecutive year,” said Derek Horne, director of athletics, in a statement. “Alcorn strives to help all our student-athletes succeed athletically and academically, setting them up for future success in their respective fields.”

In addition to the Halbrook trophy, student-athletes Troymain Crosby and Jada Hargrove were recognized with the David M. Halbrook Certificate Award for Academic Achievement Among Athletes. The individual honors are given to student athletes who excel in academics, leadership and service.

“Receiving the Halbrook Award is an outstanding recognition of the hard work and efforts of Alcorn’s student-athletes,” said Cyrus Russ, assistant vice president for athletic compliance and academic services. “This recognition represents the dedicated efforts of Alcorn’s faculty, academic counselors and staff that work so diligently to ensure student success.”

The Halbrook Award for Academic Achievement Among Athletes was established in 1984 as a result of the passage of House Concurrent Resolution No. 88. The awards program is made possible through endowments from former Rep. David M. Halbrook of Belzoni, Mississippi, and his brothers, John C. and James G. Halbrook of Belzoni, and J. A. Halbrook of Beaumont, Texas, in honor of their parents, John C. and Ernestine McCall Halbrook.

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Butler named Community MVP by NFL Players Association

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Tennessee Titan Malcolm Butler (Photo by Chipermc - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=83245134)

Vicksburg native and Tennessee Titan Malcolm Butler continues his generous charitable giving in communities where he has lived and worked. In recognition, he was named the Community MVP for week 11 by the NFL Players Association.

Butler posted the news Wednesday on Facebook.

Butler graciously helped provide people in Nashville, Tennessee, with free COVID-19 testing and grocery gift cards, feeding about 600 families. He helped residents of his hometown, Vicksburg, by giving out grocery cards as well, while also donating $5,000 to the University of West Alabama’s hunger/pandemic fund relief. UWA is his alma mater.

The NFLPA thanked Butler on Twitter for his donation.

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COVID-19

Mississippi shatters its COVID-19 case record with 2,457 new cases, 23 in Warren County

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Mississippi shattered its one-day record for new COVID-19 cases Wednesday, reporting nearly 2,500 on the eighth day of more than 1,000 cases. The Mississippi State Department of Health reports that hospitalizations are nearing the July high of around 1,250. There are more patients with confirmed cases Wednesday than ever before in the state. The state’s seven-day average of new cases is over 1,600 per day, another record, with more than 11,000 new cases reported in the last week. The seven-day average high in July was around 1,360 for the week ending July 30.

Nationally, at least 2,607 people died of the virus Tuesday and 184,174 new cases were reported. While some progress in lowering case numbers has been seen in the Midwest, cases continue to surge almost everywhere else in the country. The number of people hospitalized across the nation is quickly approaching 100,000.

In Warren County, MSDH reported 28 new COVID-19 cases Wednesday and no new deaths. The cumulative number of cases in Warren County to date is 1,830, and the county’s death toll is 58. The seven-day average of new cases has risen to 14.9, nearly triple that of early November.

Statewide, MSDH reported 2,457 new COVID-19 cases Wednesday, bringing the total cumulative confirmed cases in Mississippi to 156,868. The seven-day average of new cases is 1604.6 per day, about 876 cases higher — more than double — 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 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 Wednesday that 15 more Mississippians died of COVID-19 statewide. The cumulative number of deaths in the state is 3,851. 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.

The 15 deaths MSDH reported Wednesday occurred between Nov. 20 and Dec. 1 in the following counties:

County Deaths reported Wednesday
Covington 1
Harrison 1
Hinds 2
Itawamba 1
Lowndes 3
Marion 1
Neshoba 1
Pearl River 1
Pike 1
Rankin 1
Walthall 1
Wayne 1

New cases and deaths were reported to MSDH as of 6 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 1. 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. Monday, Nov. 30, was 1,158, about 97% of the late July peak of about 1,200. The number includes 1,057 with confirmed cases of COVID-19, another record high, and 101 people with suspected but unconfirmed cases. Of those with confirmed infections, 250 were critically ill and in intensive care units and 142 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 84% of the cumulative 156,868 cases reported as of Wednesday, Dec. 2.

The number of cases in Warren County three weeks ago, Wednesday, Nov. 11, was 1,630, therefore the estimated number of people presumed recovered in the county is 1,572, or about 85.9% of the 1,830 cumulative cases reported as of Wednesday, Dec. 2. The county has an estimated 200 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 21.9% Tuesday, according to Johns Hopkins University. The national rate is 10.2%, and 5% or lower indicates adequate testing.

The total number of outbreaks in long-term care facilities is 199 Wednesday, a decrease of one since Tuesday. About 37.8%, or 1,456, of the state’s total deaths were people in long-term care facilities. The cumulative number of COVID-19 cases in LTC facilities is 7,773, about 5% of the state’s total cases.

A total of 26 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. 15.

For additional information, visit the MSDH website.

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