Deer Park residents: Area is worth high-water hassles

Published 12:01 am Saturday, February 2, 2013

Rod Guajardo / The Natchez Democrat — Victoria Walraven, left, and her mom, Rhonda, stand in front of a flooded Deer Park Road by their house. When the water rises to 38 feet, areas around their house begin to flood, forcing them to take precautions in case the water rises any higher.

DEER PARK — Long before people inside the levee system start getting nervous about high water, the residents of a small community south of Vidalia have been inundated with floodwaters for days or even weeks.

Some years, it happens more than once.

But that’s because when you turn left off of Louisiana 15 and pass the sign that reads, “Welcome to the unincorporated community of Deer Park,” you’re entering a piece of terra firma that occupies a space between the abandoned levee system and the one now maintained by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Mississippi River comes and goes as it pleases, creeping up the land and crossing the main road when it reaches 42 feet. Residents there have already gotten their first taste of flood this year, though for the moment the National Weather Service is projecting the river will make a steady fall back to 35.5 feet by Wednesday.

Rod Guajardo / The Natchez Democrat — Rhonda Walraven’s background normally extends further, but the rising water takes what it wants, she said.

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Resident Rhonda Walraven said at 38 feet the water was at the road and within three days it was up her driveway; another 2 feet and the water would have claimed her yard.

But such is part of life in Deer Park, she said. So is occasionally having to boat a child to the bus stop.

“Being down here, taking the chances of water coming up, it is something you just deal with as it comes,” Walraven said. “You just do what needs to be done.”

Just inside the levee, there’s a storage shed on pontoons. A little further down the road, not one but two beached vessels — one a towboat, the other the historic steamer Mamie S. Barrett — sit moldering on the land, covered in vines. In the past, when the waters have risen the boats have also floated.

Nearly every structure there is built on stilts because the area sits on what could best be described as a six-month flood plane. In five years, there have been two major floods, one of which claimed the record as being the highest ever at 61.9 feet.

Many of the residents of the area treat their stilted houses as camps, and when water starts to come in they leave. Resident Howard Jones said when the river really pours in, only three families stick around; he and his wife Sherry are one of those families.

During the big flood, the record-setter in 2011, they stuck it out. Sheriff’s deputies who patrolled the area called them “the crazy ones,” he said, but the Joneses didn’t abandon their house.

“It’s not a fish camp,” he said. “We built this as our home, and if you leave your home and there ain’t nobody here, anybody who has a boat can come in and rob you of all you have got.”

Jones said he stuck it out even as the power was turned off and water rose above the stilts and into his house.

He and Sherry spent two weeks living on their 20- by 40-foot floating dock.

“I didn’t want to leave my home, because that was the first time we had that much water,” he said. “We could go stay with kinfolks but we don’t. It gets tough taking cold showers under a water hose and cooking everything on a butane cooker.”

But that’s the kind of thing that you might have to do if you choose to live in Deer Park full-time, Jones said.

As for Walraven, she, too, is staying put should the floodwaters come back.

“We’re not going anywhere,” she said. “This is our home.”

Rod Guajardo / The Natchez Democrat — Most of the house and camps at the entrance to Deer Park were completely submerged Friday when the water level was at 44 feet.