Under-the-Hill braces for river rise

Published 1:21 am Friday, January 1, 2016

NATCHEZ — With a 60-foot flood crest forecast for mid-January, business owners in low-lying areas of Natchez are preparing for the worst.

Mayor pro-tem Joyce Arceneaux-Mathis said city and county officials would meet with the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency on Monday to discuss details of the local government’s flood response.

She said the city has been, and will continue, meeting with Kevin Preston of Magnolia Bluffs Casino and with James Biglane, whose family owns most of the property on Silver Street.

Arceneaux-Mathis said the casino itself likely would not be damaged, but the parking lot and a section of Roth Hill Road may be flooded well before the crest arrives.

“Water will probably meet the road there before it hits (55 feet),” Arceneaux-Mathis said.

She said the city would have to consider closing the road when that happens in order to prevent accidents.

“What we’re trying to do is concentrate on the safety of people, and then look at the economy and businesses,” Arceneaux-Mathis said.

The state, county and city have flood plans in place, Arceneaux-Mathis said, and the local government is now preparing to follow those procedures.

Denton Biglane, who manages the property on Silver Street owned by his family, said work on a temporary water retaining wall will begin Under-the-Hill on Monday.

Biglane said a four-foot wall would be constructed of earth-filled water control devices called Hesco baskets. The wall will be constructed on the southwest side of the southernmost building on Silver Street, above the predicted crest watermark.

“We may not even need the wall,” Biglane said. “It’s just a preventive measure in case (the National Weather Service) raises the forecast later.”

Biglane said the street itself is owned by the city, and he had been informed the street would only be closed when the turnaround at the bottom of the hill becomes covered by rising floodwaters.

Jordan Kaiser and Sessions LLC, a Natchez civil engineering and surveying firm, visited Natchez Under-the-Hill yesterday. Biglane said the firm marked what areas would be covered at what water heights in orange numbers written in the street.

The turnaround at the end of the street, Biglane said, would be covered when waters reached 55 feet.

The businesses on Silver Street may remain open even if the street itself is closed by the city.

The record-setting flood of 2011 caused a shutdown of the sewage pump on Silver Street, which caused closure of the businesses there.

“Hopefully the restaurants and bars will be open the whole time, but you never can tell,” Biglane said.

Down the river, Jones Lumber Company is relying on its own levees.

The company’s facility sits directly on the riverbank, just south of the Mississippi River bridges. Because the Jones’ land is privately owned, the business owners are responsible for protecting their land from the rising tides.

Jones Lumber Company owner Lee Jones said they were getting used to levee-building.

“May 2011 was the flood —the monster flood — when the river got to 62 feet,” Jones said. “I’m still having nightmares from it.”

In 2011, Jones’ business suffered financially even though the 0.8-mile long levee the company built held back the waters.

Over four years later, the levee has settled. Over half of it lost about a foot in height.

“We were a little disappointed,” Jones said.

Despite that, Jones said his business should fare better than in 2011 because the infrastructure is mostly in place.

“We’ll have to have people out at night walking the levees, and the sawmill will be down at least two weeks, maybe longer,” Jones said.

The mill causes vibrations in the ground, which Jones said could pose a danger to the levees.

“The levee is as permanent as it can get,” Jones said, “But you never sleep well at night when you have water up against the side of any levee. You get one little breach and you’re gone. You’re out of business.”

Jones said he called the Coast Guard and asked them to impose a no-wake zone in the area to protect his levee after waters reach 55 feet.

“They really shouldn’t be on the water at all at that stage,” Jones said. “You can’t believe the waves that these upriver towboats cause. It just murders us.”

In 2011, a Coast Guard enforcer was stationed near the gazebo on the bluff to monitor boats as they passed through the floodwaters, Jones said.

“He was there 12 hours a day last time,” Jones said,

Coast Guard Lieutenant Brian Porter said the Coast Guard was in the preliminary stages of figuring out what needed to be done in regards to water traffic in the Natchez and Vidalia area.

“We’re looking at lessons learned from 2011,” Porter said. “We have a little bit of time ahead of us, with the crest around Jan. 18, and we’re still looking with our partners about what we really want to do.”

Porter said the Coast Guard would be consulting with local government and flood experts before imposing any traffic controls.

“We don’t just go into it blindly and make our own decisions,” Porter said.

The Coast Guard would make a decision that could be implemented before the floodwaters reached their peak, Porter said.