Even miles from swollen Mississippi, flood threat ‘unprecedented’

As the Mississippi River floods, its tributaries are backing up, with the Yazoo River even flowing in a reverse direction. It could not come at a worse time. Cotton and rice are starting to sprout.

By MARK GUARINO | Staff Writer Christian Science Monitor

posted May 12, 2011 at 9:07 pm EDT

Yazoo City, Miss. – As the muddy waters of the Mississippi River continue to rise, the more densely populated communities along the Mississippi Delta have been garnering much of the attention – as well they should. Cresting waters have already flooded hundreds of people out of their homes and shut down 16 casinos, a serious blow to the area’s economy.

But drive about two hours west of the mighty river and other water fills the landscape in the form of creeks, lakes, reservoirs, and rivers, a combined testament to the area’s fertility for growing crops and to a lush environment where anything, and everything, seems to turn green.

However the endless series of these Mississippi tributaries snaking across the Delta’s flat and expansive stretch of farmland makes towns like Yazoo City, nestled along the Yazoo River, just as vulnerable to disaster.

Water backed up from the Mississippi is already causing the smaller Yazoo tributary to flood, much like what happened earlier this week in the Memphis area. There the majority of damage was caused not by the Mississippi overflowing its banks in the city’s downtown, but by its many tributaries, like the Wolf and Loosahatchie Rivers, failing to contain the waters the mightier river pushed back.

Evacuations in lowland areas of unincorporated Shelby County, which includes Memphis, caused rooftop flooding of trailer parks and other small communities that had the misfortune to be located amid lowlands located far from the Mississippi.

Signs that the same thing will happen far inland in Mississippi are already present. With the Mississippi River rising in Vicksburg, Miss., the Yazoo is backing up, flowing in a reverse direction, and causing floods.

Nearly 80 percent of the land in Yazoo County, a 450-square-mile area, could be underwater, officials say. If that takes place, it could not come at a worse time. Soybeans and corn are already in the ground. Cotton and rice are starting to sprout.

Backwater flooding is already seeping along the Yazoo, and Greg Flynn, a spokesperson for the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency, predicts that water will overtop the levees by at least two feet as early as next week. Floodwaters are expected to crest on May 19.

“Because it is inland, we don’t typically see that kind of water rise,” Mr. Flynn says. “Anything in [the Yazoo] is just backing up.”

Although area officials are waiting to see how high the water gets, a small number of people in Yazoo City were evacuated and moved to shelters. Although a greater evacuation plan is in place, Yazoo City Police Major Andre Lloyd says, having to “prepare for a flood is really unprecedented” in the area. “We didn’t think it’d get this [amount of water]. But it is growing. It’s getting higher,” he says.

So far the US Army Corps of Engineers say there are no fears of a breach along the Yazoo, but that hasn’t stopped area farmers and other local residents from mobilizing to protect their homes, land, and way of life.

In Carter, Miss., a town recognized only by a shuttered general store dating back to 1903, dump trucks and backhoes busily construct mud levees around private homes, from one-story ranches to more austere, century-old brick estates. Wooden planks are nailed across windows, completing a picture that resembles Southern fortresses. Even area businesses, like Simmons Farmed Raised Catfish, a 30-year company that processes and ships the popular local catch, constructed a levee around its 400-acres of catfish ponds.

Last week, Bob Cato started digging a ditch around his 4,000 acres of land, which has been in his wife’s family since before the Civil War. The Yazoo River is in his backyard. His equipment lifts the soil and spreads it into a levee, ending at sandbags that line his driveway.

His land has been through this before. Behind Mr. Cato’s house is the former home of his wife’s grandfather, which survived the 1927 flood. Cato removed the furniture of his home into the older house for safekeeping. The land in every direction is as flat as a quarter. “A foot high in the Delta makes water go a long way,” he says.

Cato is a retired civil engineer and leases his land for farming to his neighbors. But nonetheless, he is committed to riding the waters out by staying put.

“I’m staying here until water comes up the driveway,” he says. “I have my escape route. I’m too old to start over.”

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