Delta Residents Deal With Flood Waters

Rising water levels on the Mississippi River are threatening low-lying towns and farms along the Mississippi Delta. Host Michel Martin speaks with reporter Jeffrey Hess of Mississippi Public Broadcasting about how Delta residents are preparing for the worst floods since 1927.

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MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

Now we head to Mississippi, where residents of the Delta are preparing for what could be the worst flooding in decades. Jeffrey Hess, a reporter with Mississippi Public Broadcasting, is with us now from their studios in Jackson, Mississippi. Hello, Jeffrey, thanks so much for joining us.

JEFFREY HESS: Thank you for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: What are they telling you about how bad it could get?

HESS: Well, right now they're talking about this being the worst flood that we've ever seen. A man I talked with from the Army Corps of Engineers last week said we are way past the point of calling this a hundred-year flood. The gauge everyone goes by is the Vicksburg gauge, because it's north and east of there where all the Delta farmland is that's going to see the most flooding. They're expecting that to crest at 57-and-a-half feet. That's the worst they've seen. It's a foot over the 1927 record and 14-and-a-half feet above flood stage.

MARTIN: When could that happen?

HESS: The crest right now is expected to hit right around May 20th in Vicksburg. But all the way up until then, the waters are going to continue to consistently rise. And even after it crests in late May, it's going to stick around and slowly recede over the course of the next four to six weeks after that. So much of the area is going to be in flood stage or near flood stage for the better part of two months.

MARTIN: Can you give us just a sense of which areas are most likely to be affected? Just for people who don't know the state, what's some of the names of near - border towns? Just give us some reference points.

HESS: The major cities - and going from north to south down the river - are Tunica, Greeneville, Vicksburg, and Natchez down at the very south near Louisiana. The cities themselves feel pretty confident because they're up on a bluff like Memphis was and protected by the extensive levee system. The big concern is, it's the Mississippi Delta. It's along the Mississippi River in the central part of the state. It's broad. It's flat. It's mostly farmland or low-income single family homes. And that's the area where there's going to see a lot of flooding.

There's sort of a V between the Yazoo River and the Mississippi River that creates this really fertile farmland, but it's fertile farmland because it used to flood all the time. And now we're experiencing that again.

MARTIN: What are people most worried about? And I'm also interested in the question that I asked - interested in asking you the question that I asked Mayor Wharton, which is that, you know, flood is different from other kinds of disasters - which tend to happen suddenly - and that you've got to get people ready to prepare, but you can't see the threat. You can only anticipate the threat. So is it hard to get people to prepare. And what can you do to prepare?

HESS: Well, the number one concern is definitely about the levees failing. If one of the levees fails, either the main line levee or the Yazoo River levee, then the entire Delta is going to see an additional 10 feet of flooding. It'll, I mean, it'll be a disaster that we've never seen before.

And as far as getting people to prepare, the people that I talked to do take it seriously. But for a lot of folks, they don't have the money or the savings or the capacity to pack up their home and leave their job and their life for four to six weeks. They just can't afford to do that. So, your only other option is to hold out as long as you can and hope that you're not going to flood even when you know that you've flooded every other time that the flood has come. There's just nothing you can do if you don't have that money or that capacity to leave your work.

MARTIN: What are people saying? Are they saying that they're just not going to leave?

HESS: I've talked to a number of people who are going to leave. They move in with relatives or they're packing up as much as they can. But some people just say, when it comes, that's when it comes and I'll deal with it when that happens, but until that time, I just have to go about my life. I can't suspend my life while I wait for the floodwaters to rise.

MARTIN: Tell me a bit more, if you would, in the couple of minutes we have left about the levees breaking. And I presume that during Hurricane Katrina in 2005 that the levees were tested. Can you tell us what happened then? And what are people doing to prepare for their concerns about the levees now?

HESS: Well, the Mississippi River is really highly engineered as far as the levee system goes. And it's not levees in the sense of a big concrete wall. It's more of a giant earthen berm that holds back the rising waters. And everyone here references Katrina because everyone remembers those levees breaking. And that's also what happened in 1927 when 600 people died in the flood, is that the levees broke.

So the area's protected by these levees, but it's also at the mercy of the levees as well. And the Army Corps has been very upfront to their credit saying, look, we think these levees are going to hold. But if they don't, this is going to be severe.

MARTIN: Is there a discussion about a mandatory evacuation order?

HESS: There are questions about that. But not - no one has taken the step of saying we're going to be at that point. There has been a lot of door-to-door with AmeriCorps volunteers and police officers going to places that historically flood saying the flood is coming, you have to be ready. But until the point that it's - that a levee breaks or something serious is going to happen, the officials here don't seem inclined to institute a mandatory evacuation. But they are prepared to do water rescue for flooded homes.

MARTIN: And, finally, I thought I heard you tell us earlier, you were telling us earlier, telling one of our producers earlier that there's a saw mill where workers are actually building their own levee?

HESS: Yeah. This is in Natchez at the far south end of the river. The river is expected to crest at seven feet beyond the record in Natchez. And the saw mill sits right along the river and it's got its own private levee to protect it. And they've had to build that up an additional seven feet. So when I was there, workers were all along this levee frantically trying to beat the crest of the river and save their saw mill. The owner says, if the levee doesn't hold here, it's going to wash out their entire operation and their business is done. They won't be able to recover from that type of loss.

MARTIN: All right, well, keep us posted. Jeffrey Hess is a news reporter from Mississippi Public Broadcasting. He was with us from their studios in Jackson, Mississippi. Jeffrey, thanks so much for speaking with us.

HESS: Thank you, Michel.

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