Morning storms put early end to balloon race, festival

Published 12:54 am Monday, October 23, 2017


NATCHEZ — Strong winds and rain grounded hot-air balloons and halted festivities planned for the last day of the Great Mississippi River Balloon Race, but the rain did not stop the competition.

Balloonmeister Bill Cunningham announced the cancellation of both morning and afternoon flights around 6:30 a.m. Sunday.

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“It’s been a nice weekend,” Cunningham said. “Not as nice as we’d like, but we got some balloons in the air.”

The entertainment planned near Rosalie Mansion wasn’t cancelled until approximately 10 a.m., Historic Natchez Foundation Deputy Director Trevor Brown said.

Brown said the festival was canceled because Saturday night’s wind had damaged tents on the fairgrounds and because of the inclement thunderstorms that came in Sunday.

“We also wanted to prevent damage to the Rosalie,” Brown said. “They’re so good to us.”

Brown said being susceptible to weather changes is just the nature of outdoor festivals.

“We were on track for an excellent weekend,” Brown said. “We appreciate those who stuck it out with us.”

Despite pouring rain, balloonists filed into Magnolia Bluffs Casino Hotel Sunday morning to hear the final results  of the competition.

Bruce Bussey of Longview, Texas, won first place and his brother, Bill Bussey, took home second.

Eileen and Gary Jones, of Diamondhead, placed third and fourth place went to Vidalia native Debbie Wilson.

Gary Heavin, of Gatesville, Texas, picked up a check for fifth place and Pat Cannon secured the sixth position.

The other 46 competitors each receive a $100 check for coming to the event.

Though the honoree was first announced Friday night, the recipient of the 2017 Spirit of Steckler Award received received her plaque Sunday morning.

Rachel Lott, who receieved the award, has volunteered with the balloon race since she was just a child, Cunningham said.

“Each year, she comes to us with sleeves rolled up and ready to help,” Cunningham said. “She is truly an unsung hero.”

Lott said the honor did not sink in on Friday.

“It takes all of us,” Lott said. “It takes everyone. Thank you, I’m truly honored, but I still feel like this should go to everyone.”

Cunningham said the Spirit of Steckler Award highlights one of the hundreds of dedicated volunteers who help stage the weekend-long event.

The award is named in honor of long-time balloon race supporter and volunteer, the late Dr. David Steckler.

Cunningham also highlighted the work of crew members who help launch the balloons.

“All these people that help, that run errands,” he said, “none of this happens without them.”

When the awards were all gone and the thank-yous finished, Cunningham turned to the crowd one last time.

“Once again, we come to the end,” Cunningham said. “I can’t tell you how much I love being here. I love being with you guys … God bless you, and see you next year.”