Weathering months of flooding, residents fear this Delta town will never be the same
By Alissa Zhu, Mississippi Clarion Ledger Published 3:00 a.m. CT June 25, 2019
Brown water lapped at the sides of Sonny Cliburn's mobile home near the Sunflower River as he clambered off his stepson's boat and onto his cluttered porch.
First priority for the 84-year-old was unloading the boat of supplies — cardboard boxes of medication, a sack of dog food and plastic coolers filled with bread, tomatoes, milk and butter pecan ice cream.
Cliburn's home, where he has lived alone with his three dogs since his wife died a year ago, has been surrounded by miles of flooded roads and fields for more than 15 weeks. June 12 marked the second time he has journeyed to town by boat during the months-long flood in the Mississippi Delta.
After he put the food away, Cliburn peered through the foliage, searching the watery horizon for one of his dogs. Shy and Smoke had greeted him with wagging tails but Happy was missing.
Through the flood, the dogs have been Cliburn's steadfast companions. Together, they've seen the water rise — inches away from creeping over the floorboards of his wooden porch — then ebb, but only slightly.
The flood is not going anywhere soon. Recent predictions show the Mississippi River cresting at the end of June, said Ray Coleman, spokesman for Mississippi Emergency Management Agency. That would mean waters are expected to recede in late July.
On Thursday, the U.S. Corps of Engineers Vicksburg District opened the gates of the Steele Bayou Control Structure and announced plans to open the gates of Little Sunflower Control Structure. This will allow the backwater to start draining into the rivers. The rivers had been too swollen for the gates to be opened. Engineers predict the backwater flooding will begin dropping a little more than an inch a day, said a news release.
Some homes in the Delta have been flooded since February. More than 500,000 acres — including about 250,000 acres of farmland — are covered in water and damage could total tens of millions of dollars, state officials have said. The prolonged flooding has fueled calls to revive a long-dead Yazoo backwater pumps project.
People in Cliburn's situation have had to make a difficult decision: Do they stay, knowing that a hard downpour could bring the water into their living rooms, or do they abandon their homes?
Some of Cliburn's neighbors have left but he refuses. "I had been there 60 years and I don't want to leave," he said.
His stepson, Tom Clements, frequently makes the 8-mile boat trip from Holly Bluff to deliver food and insulin to Cliburn.
Then there are people who were left no choice. They had to find shelter elsewhere when their homes flooded and their utilities cut off.
MEMA doesn't know how many families have been displaced. Numbers from a temporary housing program, which provides rental reimbursement, represent only a portion of the people forced to leave their homes due to flooding.
In Warren, Yazoo, Sharkey, Issaquena, Humphreys and Wilkinson counties, MEMA received more than 500 applications for the temporary housing program, Coleman said, and the state has disbursed more than $304,000.
Out near Holly Bluff, Cliburn waited patiently on his porch for his dog to return. A few minutes passed before he spotted Happy paddling at top speed back to the mobile home. Man and dog came together in a wet and joyful reunion.
Happy returned home, but not everyone displaced by the Delta flooding will.
Flood a blow to already shrinking town
Junae Brooks, a Holly Bluff resident and owner of Junae's Groceries, is concerned with what this flood will do to the town. "After (the flood of) '73 it became kind of a ghost town," Brooks said. In business for three years, she's hoping to make it to a fourth. Tuesday, June 11, 2019 (Photo: Barbara Gauntt/Clarion Ledger)
Longtime residents of Holly Bluff know what to expect after a major disaster: People move away.
"That's why I'm afraid of what this one is going to do," said Junae Brooks, a Holly Bluff resident and business owner. "A lot of people have moved out, relocated and I'm afraid they're going to stay gone. We have about 200 locals and we can’t really afford to lose anybody."
Decades ago, Holly Bluff was "the town," Brooks said.
Small but thriving, Holly Bluff had doctors, grocery stores and a school.
Now those are gone. The only remaining store and community hub is Junae's Groceries. There, locals can buy a burger and a cold beer. Also for sale are cartons of cigarettes, candy and travel-sized toiletries
"After (the flood of) '73 it became kind of a ghost town," she said. "I can't even imagine what it's going to be like after this flood."
Brooks opened the business in August 2016, after two other small stores in the community shut down. One was lost to a fire and the other closed due to lagging sales, she said.
She hopes to make it to four years of business, "but it ain't looking too good."
While she used to have more than 100 customers a day, that number has dropped to 10 to 15, she said.
"Once it dries, (farmers) can get back in the fields. But I think it will have a long term affect on our wildlife. From November to February, our sole financial income is based on the deer and duck hunters," she said. "If wildlife isn't here... we'll have no income coming in for the store for the next five months."
The flooding is taking an emotional toll on everyone in the community, she said.
"People are getting very depressed. Nobody comes in laughing. Nobody comes in like normal. They're all just like, 'What are they saying about the water today? Did it rise last night?'" she said. "... These people, they're grown men who have worked their whole lives ... They call me crying or come into the store, literally crying, because they're scared they're going to lose everything."
'A total loss' for young farmer's family
In order for Parker Adcock, 25, to get into his home, he must drive over miles of water-covered roads, wade through the knee-high pond that is his front yard and check for snakes on the porch.
He, his pregnant wife and 6-year-old daughter are staying with his parents after they were forced to leave their home by flooding.
The interior of his house is waterlogged; the air is humid and malodorous and a slippery film of algae covers his floors under inches of water.
He surveyed the mold-covered walls and water-stained furniture, including a heavy wooden desk on concrete blocks — a present from his mother and the first real piece of furniture that he's owned. "Just look at this, it’s a mess. It’s a mess."
Though there's not much sentimental value attached to this house, he said it's a huge financial blow to his family.
"It was kind of my stepping stone coming out of school. I put what I did have, what I made during school into it … now it’s a total loss," Adcock said.
He expects the worst is yet to come. His baby boy is due in December. He is doubtful he'll have a permanent place to stay by then. In addition to losing his home, the young farmer won't have a crop this year.
"It's a day-to-day strain. You just kind of have to roll with the punches. Take it one day at a time," he said.
Even so, Adcock manages to stay upbeat. He acknowledges that he is in a better situation than some others. For the time being, he can stay at his parents home and he has flood insurance.
For him, what cuts most deeply is the belief that the scope of the flooding could have been limited, or altogether avoided.
"This is a man-made disaster that could have been easily prevented," he said.
Will salvation be found in pumps?
Signs are popping up in the Delta. They're posted on billboards, hung from houses and scrawled with spray paint on levees.
"Finish the pumps!" they demand.
The longer the flood drags on, more support builds for the Yazoo Backwater Pump project, a long-dead flood control and drainage proposal.
The project, which started taking shape with the Flood Control Act of 1941, was killed in 2008 by the Environmental Protection Agency, which said the pumps would result in "unacceptable damage" to wetlands that serve as "critical fish and wildlife habitat."
In the decades between the genesis and death of the pumps project, the government had built a series of structures, including the Yazoo Backwater Levee, Steele Bayou Structure and connecting levees. This cost hundreds of millions of dollars in today's money, said Kent Parrish, senior project manager with U.S. Corps of Engineers, Vicksburg District.
"Basically all those pieces were put together with the expectations the pump would be there," Parrish said. "...The project was envisioned with that feature to make it all work. It won't all work without having that one last piece."
The Yazoo pumps project would cost more than $220 million to build, with an annual operating cost of more than $2 million, according to an EPA news release from 2008, announcing the agency's decision to veto.
In 2004, the late-U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, called the pump project "one of the worst projects ever conceived by Congress."
Opponents say the pumps could worsen flooding downstream, and environmental groups have argued that the pumps would be used by farmland owners to increase agricultural production.
If the pumps had been built, they would not have prevented the backwater area from flooding, Parrish said. The pumps wouldn't start working until flood water reaches 87 feet above sea level. They would have limited the scope of the flood's impact, however.
Many Holly Bluff residents feel resentment towards the EPA and believe flooding has harmed wildlife and the environment more than the pumps would have.
"People who live here say, 'When did wetlands become more important than human beings?' ....That’s how we look at it," Brooks, the Holly Bluff business owner said.
During a May news conference Gov. Phil Bryant said the EPA is reviewing its veto decision.
Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith recently penned a letter to President Donald Trump, asking for temporary pumps to be installed to pump river over the levee and into the Mississippi River. A U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spokeswoman told the Clarion Ledger they're "taking a hard look" at the possibility of temporary pumps.
Dale Cockrell's family has been farming in the Delta for at least four generations, but after weathering this year's flood, he says he won't be staying in the area.
Flooded farmland has prevented him from planting anything. His home is underwater. Cockrell fears that flooding will only come back stronger and more frequently in the future.
"Do I want to stay and put up with this? No, not if they don't put in the pumps," he said.
Asked where he might be headed next, Cockrell mused: "I've always wanted to go to Alaska."