Amid Floods, Gateway To The South Is High And Dry

Vicksburg, Mississippi Mayor Paul Winfield says the flooding is not as extensive as photos make it seem. He says residents are prepared partly due to his three pronged approach to flood management. Host Michel Martin speaks with Mayor Winfield about the flooding in Vicksburg and his approach to dealing with the flood and reconstruction.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. In the program today, we're going to talk about the lives that are being changed by this extreme weather that's plagued the south this year. Later, we'll go back to Alabama to visit a mother whose home was destroyed by that line of tornadoes that ripped through the state last month. We'll ask her how she's doing. But first, we want to find out more about the flooding in Louisiana and Mississippi.

The crest of the floods has been moving down the length of the Mississippi River. In Vicksburg, Mississippi, the river has already reached its highest point since 1927, and is expected to keep rising until tomorrow. Paul Winfield is the mayor of Vicksburg. He joins us from his office near the diversion canal to fill us in on the flood situation in his town. Mr. Mayor, thanks so much for joining us.

PAUL WINFIELD: Good morning, Michel, and thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So, how bad is it?

WINFIELD: Well, it's a tough situation for a lot of our residents and business owners. Of course, this is a historic flood. To date, we have in excess of 2,100 residents and business owners who have been affected in our community.

MARTIN: What about your office?

WINFIELD: Excuse me?

MARTIN: What about your office?

WINFIELD: Well, City Hall, fortunately, is nested on top of a hill. The city of Vicksburg is the hilly city of the South. In fact - or the gateway of the South, if you will. And it's a pretty significant disaster for a significant number of our residents, but most of our city is high in the hills and high and dry.

MARTIN: Now, I understand that you've been mayor since 2009, but you grew up in Vicksburg, is that right?

WINFIELD: I did. I'm a native of Vicksburg. I have a lot of roots here, a lot of family here. And so I have a lot of family and friends who have been affected by this flood.

MARTIN: How are they doing?

WINFIELD: Well, everyone is hanging in there. One of the things our administration did upon finding out was we coordinated a campaign of awareness for all the residents and citizens. We informed them. We were able to bring them relief prior to receiving the federal disaster declaration. So those types of steps that we took to mitigate the stress level on our residents.

MARTIN: You mean like - what? Trying to get people out of their houses in advance, or to save as much as they could in advance, that kind of thing?

WINFIELD: Well, for example, what we did, we partnered with the AmeriCorps and the United Way and Red Cross and did a door-knocking campaign by making our residents aware of the fact that the waters were coming, and we gave them packets that gave them need-to-know numbers so they could take the necessary precautions. We coordinated community meetings. And the United Way was gracious enough to offer housing assistance, temporary housing assistance for any and all affected flood victims. And this was done, so prior to us even receiving a federal disaster declaration. So we had a great level of community support.

MARTIN: In fact, we talked to one of the town residents, George Lynn(ph), and we asked him about his plans to deal with the floods. And this is what he told us.

GEORGE LYNN: Well, pretty well all my furniture are out, you know, beds and dresser drawers and all that. And I moved everything up high as I could. And all I got left to do here now is to take the doors off and the drawers there on the bottom. So I've got plenty left to do. I've lived here all my life, and I ain't - definitely, I'm not going to move out. But when the water goes down, I'll just change out the carpet, whatever I can do, and move back.

MARTIN: Well, you see, he sounds pretty upbeat, just as you do. And I understand that that's part of what you're trying to do, is keep people thinking - you know, in a positive fashion. But how long might it be before people can move back into their homes, if indeed they can move back into their homes? Do you know?

WINFIELD: Well, that is a really good question, Michel. One of the things that the Army Corps of Engineers of have informed us is that we should expect the water to stand anywhere from 10 days to two weeks at the crest level. And then we should expect a slow and gradual fall, which should take about five to six weeks. And I can tell you, we have been working day and night to stay on top of this, and we've been meeting early and often to make sure our residents and citizens know that we care.

The hard part is going to begin tomorrow, the recovery stage, and if you will, encouraging residents to go on and file their applications with FEMA to start the individual assistance program and to help make this process as stress-free as possible. That's my main objective as we move towards our path of recovery. We have a significant amount of infrastructure damage, damage even to city-owned buildings, as well as personal property of people. So our goal right now is to promote personal public safety, and then secondarily to secure the property at the water's edge, which we've been doing.

MARTIN: And finally, before I let you go do you mind if I ask you: How are you staying so upbeat? This has to be hard.

WINFIELD: Well, I'm a young man. I'm an ex-college athlete from the University of Mississippi, a football player. So I'm a strong, young man, and I've got some broad shoulders, and I'm just honored to be here in this position in this time to help shepherd our community through this.

MARTIN: All right. Paul Winfield is the mayor of Vicksburg, Mississippi, and he was nice enough to join us from his offices there. Mr. Mayor, thank you so much for joining us. And of course, we wish you the best.

WINFIELD: Thank you for having me, and keep us on your prayers.

MARTIN: And all right. We will.

WINFIELD: Bye-bye.

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