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Sen. Wicker reviews flood’s impact with mayor

Ben Hillyer | The Natchez Democrat — J.M. Jones Lumber Company’s Howard Jones, right, points out washed out areas of the levees surrounding the lumber company along the Mississippi River.

NATCHEZ — Sen. Roger Wicker and his wife Gayle climbed Tuesday on top of a $500,000 example of the financial burdens the record-high Mississippi River has put on Mississippians.

Standing on top of the dirt levees built with private money by J.M. Jones Lumber Co., vice president Howard Jones pointed the senator and Mayor Jake Middleton toward a section of clay-colored river water near the levee’s edge.

“That’s my levee washing out,” Jones said.

Wicker and Middleton ended a helicopter tour at the lumber mill during Wicker’s last of a three-city tour to inspect flood damage.

“Natchez was much more fortunate than Tunica or Vicksburg because of the natural bluffs,” Wicker said.

Ben Hillyer | The Natchez Democrat — A tow boat pushes a load up the river past the levees that have been patched and reinforced with sandbags over the last couple of weeks during the 2011 flood.

Wicker commended the efforts of J.M. Jones, but encouraged Adams County residents who do have damage to register their claims for federal financial help.

J.M. Jones owner Lee Jones said Federal Emergency Management Agency representatives were on site that day, just checking things out. Jones said FEMA agents are helping the company with its application for loans from the U.S. Small Business Administration to help pay the cost of preparation.

Howard estimated the levees cost $500,000 to build to prepare for an original crest estimate of 65 feet.

“That’s not counting the lost revenue,” Howard said.

The mill has not operated for nearly a month.

Nor does the dollar figure count the 24-hour surveillance, nighttime levee walkers, sweat, dirt and fatigue of fighting the river for nearly a month.

“We were going to have a big celebration for 100 years (in business) on May 20,” Howard told Middleton and Wicker.

May 20 was also the day the river was originally forecast to crest at a historic level.

The river actually crested at 61.95 feet May 18. The river level was at 58.76 feet Tuesday — still higher than any record.

Wicker said it would be weeks before FEMA and local government agencies can make assessments of the damage.

Ben Hillyer | The Natchez Democrat — Retired towboat captain Simpson Kemp talks with towboat operators on the Mississippi River from a monitoring station in a small trailer located on the Natchez bluff overlooking the river.

But the senator, a Pontotoc native, encouraged everyone who thinks they might have a claim to register with FEMA, despite any hang-ups on hand outs.

“I find many (people) in Mississippi are reluctant to register; they’re the kind of people that take care of themselves. But I’m encouraging (those affected) to register their damage,” Wicker said.

Flood survivors can register with FEMA by calling 800-621-FEMA (3362) or online at www.DisasterAssistance.gov.

As Howard, Middleton and Wicker met up with Lee and Gayle on the north end of the levee, Lee pointed at tugboats chugging northbound, pushing barges.

Lee said as long as the U.S. Coast Guard keeps as vigilant an eye on river traffic as it has lately, he believes the five-generation company will come out OK.

“If the Coast Guard stays monitoring these cowboys on the river; we’ve got a good chance,” he said.

He estimated every third time a vessel travels north, repairs need to be made to levees after getting whipped around by waves from the boat’s wake.

Ben Hillyer | The Natchez Democrat — A small trailer sits high on the Natchez bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River. The trailer is used to monitor brage traffic to the south and north of the Natchez and Vidalia area.

“If (the Coast Guard) leaves, this was just an exercise in futility,” Lee said of the temporary levees and month’s worth of labor.

Lee said the Coast Guard has done a great job of making sure vessels obey restrictions and keeping him informed.

He showed the mayor and senator text messages on his iPhone from a Coast Guard official updating the status of each boat coming up the river.

A portable Vessel Traffic System has been set up in the parking lot on the bluff near the Cock of the Walk for two weeks.

The trailer, which was set up by a marine traffic industry company, the Kirby Corporation, contains a 48-inch screen that gives a clear, computer generated picture of what river traffic looks like up and down the river.

The Coast Guard, as well as industry representatives, monitor the speed, spacing and locations of any nearby vessels.

Simpson Kemp, who works for Canal Barge Co., in east Baton Rouge, was monitoring river traffic with Coast Guard member Ryan Bresnahan Tuesday afternoon.

Kemp said the portable traffic monitoring systems are set up whenever traffic is compromised by river conditions. There are several along the river currently monitoring flooded areas, he said.

“We use them for oil spills, anything that messes with navigation,” Kemp said.

Normally, the vessels would be navigating themselves, but the system makes them wait for clearance at checkpoints within a six mile stretch north and south of Natchez, Bresnahan said.

Bresnahan, who normally works in Vicksburg, said Coast Guard representatives will likely be stationed in Natchez until the river falls below flood stage.

From his post inside the Vessel Traffic System trailer, Bresnahan said he keeps in constant contact with a second Coast Guard official, whom has been keeping the Joneses in the loop.

Wicker said the professionals in the Coast Guard and Corps of Engineers have done their jobs in doing what they can and providing information to allow people to prepare.

“My hat is off to the professionals,” Wicker said.

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