Water leaves major damages—and questions—in its wake
Unbelievable. Awe-inspiring. Unprecedented. Those are some of the words used to describe the Great Flood of 2011. But mere words can’t really convey the epic event that was the greatest test ever of the Mississippi Rivers & Tributaries Project (MR&T) that was put into place after the devastating Mississippi River Flood of 1927.
By contrast, the Great Flood of 2011 didn’t result in a single death. Hundreds of homes were flooded. By mid June FEMA had approved 1,153 applications for Mississippi flooding assistance with a total of about $7 million allocated—most for temporary housing assistance. Agricultural losses have been estimated at $455 million. But the MR&T passed its greatest test ever.
“This project designed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (COE) has done what it was designed to do,” says Sykes Sturdivant, president, Yazoo-Mississippi Delta (YMD) Levee Board. “Over the years, engineers did a tremendous job putting together a project that actually worked and saved billions of dollars and the lives of people. It saved the town of Greenwood. It saved New Orleans. It saved Baton Rouge.”
Exploding two miles of levee saved Cairo, Ill., from devastating flooding. Opening the Bonnet Carré and Morganza spillways in Louisiana relieved pressure on the levees, which was in the MR&T plan. The YMD Levees did their job, as did the four major flood control reservoirs in northwest Mississippi.
“The fact the system all worked as designed is an amazing feat,” Sturdivant says. “We were so fortunate. And the people down south were so fortunate.”
There is hope that the superior performance of the MR&T will break a logjam in Congress re-funding. MR&T, which is 95 percent complete, wasn’t funded this past year or this year by Congress. Flood control proponents plan to lobby Congress to provide funding to finish the project, and make repairs from the recent flooding.
“Without this project, Glendora would have been surrounded by water,” Sturdivant says. “Most of the farms in Tallahatchie County would have been under water. The only thing slowing it down now is funding. So the people in Quitman County will still suffer until we get funded. Washington needs to get with it and fund the flood control projects because it would have cost a heck of a lot more if the levees hadn’t held.”
“We really dodged a bullet,” says Mississippi Levee Board Chief Engineer Peter Nimrod. “We are really pleased with how everything turned out. There are a bunch of features to MR&T including levees, basin and channel improvement, floodways and flood control reservoirs. This flood pretty much utilized all the features of the MR&T. The scariest part of the whole 2011 event was the possibility of overtopping Yazoo Backwater Levee. It is designed to overtop. But the levees held back 16.6 feet of water. It worked out great.”
The MR&T protected everything on the landside of the levees. Everything on the riverside of the levees had devastating flooding. While unfortunate, nothing could be done about that.
The Mississippi River drainage basin is the third largest in the world. Some doubted that any man-made engineering could hold back the river when faced with such a massive volume of water.
“This was a huge test of the system,” Nimrod says. “If you don’t test its limit, you don’t know for sure if it will work or not. This event came within eight feet of project design test. Some people doubted it would pass, but it did. Everyone was very pleased.”
But even before all the sleepless nights and long hours patrolling the levees to be vigilant against breaks was over, flood control officials were looking to the next steps.
“We have to get back to work and shore up some weaknesses in the levees system, some we knew about before and some we did not,” Nimrod says. “We found about a dozen problem areas along the levee system. We are going to work getting with the Corps to correct the issues. Some need to be done this year so if we have another high water event next year, we can pass it, as well. Then if a worse event comes along, we will be prepared and ready.”
Kavanaugh Breazeale, chief of public affairs with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Vicksburg District, says all the lessons won’t be known until the floodwaters completely recede.
“We are still in the fact finding mode working with the local levee boards to watch the levees as the water goes down to see if there are any irregularities,” Breazeale says. “This was a historic flood. We have never seen levels this high, but our system was designed for these levels and it performed excellently. Now, as the water goes down, we look to see any irregularities. The slower it goes down, the less stress there is resulting in washes or erosion.”
While there were million dollar impacts to ports, shipping and casinos along the Mississippi River, the biggest financial impacts hit ag. Delta Council Executive Director Chip Morgan says there was a “lost flood” that few people outside the region knew much about because attention was focused on the mainline levees.
“There were three separate floods in the Delta,” Morgan says. “One was in the Marks/Quitman County area where 265,000 acres of cropland flooded. That is the flood no one knew much about because everyone was looking at the huge river flood that threatened the whole Delta. There were crop damages of more than $250 million. That was the biggest flood in the Delta. Not many knew Marks was sandbagged for 3.5 weeks, but it was. That flooding was caused by local rainfall.”
The second most damaging flood was in the Rocky Bayou\Wolf Lake\Carter area—the Delta portion of Yazoo and Humphreys counties. About 117,000 acres of cropland flooded with damages estimated at $140 million. The Yazoo Backwater areas (Issaquena, Sharkey, Warren and Yazoo counties) saw 68,000 acres of farmland impacted with estimated damages of $62 million.
One irony was that in some places in the Delta, a local drought accompanied the flood; people were irrigating crops in one area of the county while croplands in other areas of the county were flooded.
“We had a drought in the Delta while this river has been going by us,” Morgan says. “We were at 30 percent average rainfall. If we had normal rainfall, we would have had four more feet of water on the river. At above normal rainfall, we would have had a disaster of big magnitude. We try to look at it on the positive side. Even as bad as it was for those who did flood, the system worked. It did what it was supposed to do. The test of a lifetime was will the levees hold a 1927-type flood. And they passed the test. The grade is on the schoolhouse door.”
Many farmers have crop insurance, but Morgan says that varies in how much it covers—and it never covers the entire losses. It doesn’t cover replanting for one thing. Farmers will replant soybeans if they can. But soybeans are not the crop of choice. Most farmers were planting corn and cotton because of higher market prices than for soybeans.
Another ag issue “lost” in the news of the flood disaster is regarding acres that had already been contracted for sale. For example, a farmer might have booked 500 acres of cotton at $1.10 a pound. If his cotton was lost to flooding, he has to go into the market to purchase that amount of cotton to replace what he booked.
“And guess what?” Morgan asks. “The price has gone to $1.42 a pound for cotton. That is where the big gamble is. You can pay some back with $13 a bushel soybeans, but if you do the math, the farmer is likely still going to suffer some major losses. That is the dilemma we have been caught in. Crop insurance doesn’t help that at all.”
Howard Brent, Greenville, who has a hunting camp and farm in Yazoo County, was born in 1937 when there was a big flood. And he has seen many since then. He feels fortunate that of his 4,500 acres, 4,000 are in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) that encouraged farmers to have lakes and grow trees rather that cultivate row crops. He has 500 acres left in farmland that flooded.
“The losses were much less than they would have been without the CRP program,” Brent says. “They help you in planting the trees. It is a good program especially on this marginal farmland, and it helps the wildlife.”
He expects the damages from his wheat that flooded will be substantial. By the time the water leaves it will be too late to plant anything else except go back with wheat and hope it doesn’t flood again, says Brent, who also had a caretaker’s cottage and the first floor of his three-story house there flood.
Brent was concerned about impacts to the abundant wildlife of the Delta.
“It is terrible all the wildlife drowned in the flood,” he says. “They would go on high ridges and then the water just kept coming up. They had no place to go.”
Wildlife and Hunting
Some wildlife was able to get out of the way of the floodwaters.
Brad Young, black bear program leader, Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks (MDWFP), says the 14 collared endangered black bears the MDWFP keeps tabs on are all doing fine.
“They stayed within the flooded area,” Young says. “Bears are very well adapted to floods. They are such good swimmers and good tree climbers. They waited it out in the trees. Bears spend a lot more time in trees than most people realize. High water for them is more an inconvenience than anything.”
MDWFP expects that the deer population won’t take a huge hit as history has shown that deer escape to higher ground as waters rise.
“We have been evaluating the situation along the Mississippi River and throughout the south Delta,” says MDWFP Deer Program Biologist Lann Wilf. “We expect minimal long-term impacts to deer abundance because flood waters rose slowly, which gave deer time to seek higher ground.”
The flooding will not force closure of the 2011-12 deer season.
MDWFP says fish pulled from flood waters may contain contaminates such as mercury or lead in their fat tissues. These heavy metals as well as pesticides from flooded fields can occur in high concentrations in these fish.
The state recommends consumption of these fish should be avoided until the proper authorities have deemed the fish safe.
And mosquito numbers are likely to explode with flood waters left behind in all types of containers such as old tires, boats, and even swimming pools. Mosquitoes can spread diseases such as encephalitis and West Nile Fever.
For casinos along the Mississippi River, the Great Flood of 2011 was their equivalent of Hurricane Katrina. While the casinos themselves received little flooding damage, access roads to most of the casinos were closed due to flooding.
“The flood had a major economic impact on Tunica,” says Webster Franklin, president and CEO of the Tunica Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We had nine of our casinos and 4,600 hotel rooms closed for a little over three weeks. More importantly, we had roughly 10,000 employees not coming to work here each day, not to mention the thousands of visitors. There was a tremendous impact from the tourism standpoint, but also restaurants, grocery stores and convenience stores were adversely impacted without the employee base being here. You really saw a halt to the overall economy. Hopefully this is a once in a 70-year event.”
Lyn Arnold, president and CEO, Tunica Chamber of Commerce, says without the casino operating there was a domino effect on other businesses. Local tax losses are estimated at $3 million, and there were costs for flood cleanup and repairs. But the fact that the casinos all paid their employees during the shutdown period went a long way to help.
“It just goes to show what good corporate citizens the gaming industry is in Mississippi,” Arnold says. “I don’t think we could ask for more. I’m not sure how many corporations in the country would close down for three weeks and pay their employees.”
As the casinos reopened, business hasn’t picked up to the levels it would be normally. But Arnold says business is coming back, and they hope to have a good summer.
Arnold says the response to the disaster was amazing.
“We have outstanding emergency management services here,” she says. “I think FEMA has done a great job. They were here early, and made a great deal of effort to contact residents of Cutoff and get services going. The community came together, and there was a group of local churches and community organizations that helped people move out when they needed to do that. All over the community there are stories where people offered the services or help they could.”
Prior to the closing on May 6, Harlow’s Casino in Greenville installed temporary levees around the property.
“Unfortunately, we did suffer a breach, and sustained some flooding to our entertainment venue and some of our food and beverage areas,” says Julie Koenig Loignon, vice president for corporate communications, Churchill Downs Inc. “Those areas remain closed, and we are currently working on plans for them. The hotel roof was damaged by high winds back in February and has been closed since then for repairs. We hope to have the hotel fully back in operation by the end of June.”
Loignon says they are still assessing the financial impact of the flooding and water, but Harlow’s did have both property damage and business interruption insurance on the property.
Felicia Gavin, executive vice president and general manager of DiamondJack’s in Vicksburg, says their casino was closed for 36 days before reopening June 15. She says every day the casino was closed meant losses of millions of dollars in revenue.
“That in turn is impacting the city as well as the state regarding tax collections,” Gavin says.
Losses in tax revenues from 16 of the 19 casinos being closed for three to four weeks could be close to the revenues seen in May of 2010, which was $110 million with $4.4 million going to local governments.
“Overall, I am expecting that the total figure will be less than the above-mentioned number of $110 million, since some of the casinos were not closed for an entire month,” says Larry Gregory, executive director of the Mississippi Gaming Commission. “There are approximately 13,000 employees and 6,700 hotel rooms operated by casinos in the Delta area (Tunica, Lula, Greenville, Vicksburg, and Natchez). The majority of the casinos took care of their employees to the extent of full pay and benefits from two weeks up to thirty days.”
Shipping & Ports
Delta ports all went underwater with the flood. At press time, waters were still receding and ports were still waiting for more complete damage inspections.
“We really won’t know the overall final extent of it until we can get engineers to look at it,” says Wayne Mansfield, director of the Vicksburg Port, Warren County Port Commission. “We had some damage to our terminal facility and warehouse, and our bridge crane.”
The port was shut down for about a month. Mansfield says a partnership between the ports, the Corps of Engineers and local industries helped mitigate the impacts.
“We worked with all our industries with preparation and assisting them as much as we could with the flood event,” he says. “Due to the capabilities of our industries, to a large extent there was success in keeping the majority of our industries in continued operation.”
Greenville Port Director Tommy Hart says their public terminal was submerged in ten feet of water, and they lost 30 days worth of trans loading from barge to rail or truck. He was expecting to be back in operation before the end of June after cleanup, repair and reinstallation of equipment removed when the flood was looming.
“Obviously there will be a certain amount of damage to our infrastructure, so we have to be careful about getting back to work with too much weight too quick until the water goes down,” Hart says.
Rosedale Port Director Robert R. Maxwell Jr. says the only structural damage they experienced was to a floating dock that houses two conveyor systems used at the public terminal.
“We were able to stabilize the dock, but we were unable to reposition it in its original place,” Maxwell says. “This caused the conveyor systems to be misaligned with the dock rendering one of them unusable until the dock can be repositioned and re-stabilized.”
Maxwell says the employees and inmate laborers of the Rosedale-Bolivar County Port Terminal were helpful on more than one occasion to the Mississippi Levee Board in the battle against a sand-boil that occurred near the Francis Landing area of the levee north of Rosedale.
The Yazoo County Port also went under water affecting shipments in and out of the port. One of the largest employers in Yazoo County, Simmons Catfish, ceased operating during the flood and had to lay off more than 300 employees, says Henry Cote, executive director, Yazoo Chamber of Commerce.
Cote says ag businesses in the country also took a hit, including crop dusters being unable to operate because the airport was under water. Other aviation activities also ceased during the flooding. DBJ