Miss. Delta farmers fear backwater flooding

Published 4:43 pm Monday, May 9, 2011

CARTER (AP) — Ed Jordan’s family has worked these fertile fields for four generations. They’ve survived droughts, tornados and, yes, even floods. They’re not the kind of people to pack up and run from nature, but that’s what they’re doing this time.

This community north of Yazoo City is about 35 miles from the Mississippi River, but floodwaters from swelling tributaries are slowly swallowing the land between here and Vicksburg, especially along the Yazoo River.

Jordan (pronounced JER’-din), pointed to a high-water mark about 7 feet high in the family’s old general store left by the deadly flood of 1927. Floods have taken crops since then, but the Mississippi River hasn’t swamped their homes in generations.

Email newsletter signup

He’s afraid it will happen this time.

“We have 400 acres of beautiful wheat that’s almost ready for harvest. We have about an 1,000 acres of corn that’s chest high and just waiting on a combine (to harvest it). That’s going to be gone,” Jordan said. “I don’t know what is going to happen to our houses.”

Just down the road, relatives helped Jordan’s 87-year-old aunt, Katherine Jordan, pack up a house that was moved here from Yazoo City in 1961. They loaded the furniture on a cotton trailer and prepared to head to higher ground. A tractor outside scrapped dirt from a wheat field to form a levee around the house.

Ed Jordan said he leased a house on higher ground and will live there until the water goes down. His aunt is going to live with her sister, Charline Killebrew, 84, in “town,” nearby Yazoo City, where the Delta flatlands meet the central Mississippi hills.

Katherine Jordan remembers another bad flood, in 1973. Back then, she would wake up every day and look out the kitchen window to see how close the water had come.

It never got the house. She’s not sure she’ll be so lucky this time. That’s why she moved everything that sits lower than chest high.

“Just pray. That’s all you can do,” Katherine Jordan said. “You get to the point where you just do whatever you can do, whether it’s right or wrong.”

Officials said the area could start going under water by this weekend.

Scott Haynes, 46, estimates he’ll spend more than $80,000 on contractors to build levees around his house and grain silos, which hold 200,000 bushels of rice that he can’t get out before the water comes.

Heavy equipment has been mowing down his wheat fields to get to the dirt that is being used to build the levees.

“That wheat is going to be gone, anyway,” Haynes said. “We don’t know if we’re doing the right thing or not, but we can’t not do it.”

Haynes said at least 9,000 acres of his 10,000-acre farm is expected to flood.

He knows time is not on his side. “I’ve got to get back on that dozer,” he said, before walking away.

Similar scenes are playing out all through the Mississippi Delta. People who can afford to are building protective levees around homes and businesses. Others are just taking what they can and getting out.

Harry Simmons, 60, has owned Simmons Farmed Raised Catfish, a fish farm and processing plant for 30 years.

He was wrapping a levee around his home, business and about 400 acres of catfish pounds. He’s trying to protect the core of the catfish ponds and will move the fish from unprotected waters to the ponds inside the levee he’s building.

“We’ve been at it for over a week. The closer to the time the water arrives, the more frantic it will get,” he said.

Corps spokesman Ben Robinson uses a traffic analogy to describe why this area will get wet, comparing the Mississippi River to a major interstate during rush hour and Yazoo River to a side road.

“Once the traffic gets backed up, it’s going to spill onto the side road,” Robinson said.

In other words, the water is so high in the Mississippi that the Yazoo is a backing up.

Closer to the Mississippi River, an area known as the Yazoo Backwater levees is expected to overtop, as designed, as the water gets higher. That alone is expected to flood more than 430 square-miles, Robinson said. Workers are topping those levees with plastic to keep them from eroding.

“That is designed to relieve pressure on the mainline levees,” Robinson said. “The system is working exactly as it was designed to.”