Receding floodwaters reveal ruined homes, crops

Published 3:11 am Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Mississippi River crest has passed through the South, but the misery caused by flooding is far from over.   

As water recedes, residents from Tennessee to Louisiana face the task of gutting houses soaked in polluted water. Farmers will have to scrub their fields of sandy sludge before trying to use what’s left of the growing season. Shipping is likely to be restricted for weeks because of pressure on levees, and a close watch will be kept well into the summer on strained levees, bridges and other structures.

“It’s falling now, slowly but surely. But it ain’t falling that fast for me to get home,” said William Jefferson, who has had at least 6 feet of water in his Vicksburg, Miss., house for two weeks. “I don’t know what to expect. I won’t know what to expect until I open the doors. Nobody knows until they open the door, then all hell breaks loose.”

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Some of the worst flooding has been along tributaries, and not all of the smaller rivers in Louisiana have hit their peak. The Atchafalaya River took on water diverted from the swollen Mississippi to spare more populous cities downstream, and it’s expected to rise several more feet this week in Cajun communities like Butte Larose. Residents there were ordered to leave by Tuesday.

Upstream in Tennessee, people have been returning home to find damaged appliances, water-soaked beds and ruined clothing. Residents in several states are fretting about where they’ll get rebuilding money as government inspectors evaluate homes, with some leaving behind color-coded stickers to say whether dwellings can be salvaged at all. Officials haven’t yet put an overall dollar figure on residential damage, but thousands of homes were flooded in Tennessee, Mississippi and Louisiana.

Tuesday was the second day Memphis resident Wesley Roberts has been allowed back to his rented mobile home to retrieve possessions since it flooded to its 10-foot ceiling. It now sits on dry land with a red sticker on the glass sliding door indicating it’s no longer inhabitable. 

“I’ve never lost everything before,” said the 59-year-old retiree. “It’s new to me.”

Roberts came back from a trip to Texas on May 1 to find the home near a tributary on the north side of town already underwater. His is among 2,500 houses and businesses in Shelby County that sustained at least some damage. 

“There wasn’t nothing I could do,” he said. “I didn’t have no boat. I just had to sit up there on that hill and watch my house get more and more underwater.”

Scrubbing walls and floors with bleach, south Memphis resident Billy Burke counted himself lucky that floodwaters from a tributary didn’t rise higher than his basement. He expects to spend $3,000 to $4,000 to clean out the basement and replace his water heater.

“That water had a bad smell to it,” Burke said of the murky, brown soup that also filled his backyard. “I had to get rid of the bacteria and the mold. I don’t want no bacteria getting in there.”

In parts of northwest Mississippi, the agonizing wait continues for water to recede. Many houses have been flooded to the attics for weeks, and officials say some will have to be gutted or torn down. Government inspections must take place before many homeowners can return, a process that could take a week.

State officials say 1,664 primary residences have been evacuated, but it’s not clear how many of those are flooded. Many victims have already applied for federal aid, but some say that process is moving slower the water’s retreat.

Howard Scott, a 47-year-old contractor from Tunica County, has said officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency told him he needed to apply — and be turned down — for a Small Business Administration loan before he can get FEMA aid.

“They’re telling us to apply for loans they know we won’t get,” Scott said.

Cleanup is slowed in some of Mississippi’s riverside neighborhoods because authorities don’t want heavy equipment on roads that cross the saturated levees. Infrastructure problems up and down the river also include the closure of a flood-damaged rail bridge in Louisiana and treacherous navigation conditions that force barges to go slowly.

A stretch of the Mississippi River at Baton Rouge was reopened to southbound vessels several days after three barges sank amid high water and fast currents. Traffic is being restricted in both directions, and at least 27 vessels were waiting Tuesday to move south.

In northern Louisiana, officials that oversee hundreds of miles of levees in four parishes have been laying sandbags since March to fight spots called sand boils where water seeps to the surface. Although the Mississippi crested there last week, the president of the state’s 5th levee district figures the fight won’t end until early July.

“Every day I’ve got new ones popping up all over the place,” he said of the sand boils.  “I don’t see any relief for us for at least a month. It’s been pretty doggone grueling.”

Army Corps of Engineers Maj. Gen. Michael Walsh underscored the need to keep a close eye on the levees: “We’re putting as much pressure on the system as it is designed to withstand.”

Also swept away in the floods were farmers’ irrigation systems and inches of topsoil. Left in their place are sand deposits and debris that must be cleared before farmers can begin the urgent work of salvaging the season. Earlier this week, farmers in Tennessee sought advice from state and federal agriculture officials on how late crops could be planted.

“We’ll plant ‘til we get done,” said 58-year-old Jimmy Moody, who farms along the Mississippi River in Tennessee’s in Dyer County. “With the help of the good Lord, we’ll get a crop in.”

He dreads what he will find when he gets to his fields, but he couldn’t reach them on Tuesday. The road was washed out and the water was too shallow for a boat.

“What I can see of my neighbors looks like a war zone,” Moody said. “Walls of country store caved in, grain bin collapsed.”

In Louisiana alone, agriculture officials estimate that over 282,000 acres cropland could be flooded, causing $211.5 million dollars in losses.

About a sixth of farmer Ted Schneider’s 2,800 acres in northeastern Louisiana was inundated.

“Today that crop is under 20 feet of water,” Schneider said on Tuesday.

Back inside Roberts’ Memphis mobile home, he found the floor coated with grime and mud. His refrigerator lay door-down in his kitchen. A heavy television from his bedroom had floated into the living room. His bed, most of his clothes and a new sofa and recliner are now trash.

“I don’t even have a jacket,” Roberts said, standing in the sun and 80-degree heat. “I don’t know what I’m going to do when it does get cold.”

A gold-colored clock shaped like a huge Rolex wristwatch hung on the wall, ticking away. One salvageable thing.

“This don’t seem much to anybody, but this is all I had,” he said.

Roberts bent down and picked up a small model of a triple-mast sailing ship he bought in San Diego.

“How come you didn’t float, dude?” he said as he picked up the boat.