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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)

Copyright © 2021 Vicksburg Daily News.

Vicksburg Daily News