Recovery continues from 2011 Mississippi River flood

Published 9:30 pm Saturday, April 7, 2012

The levees held.

But that doesn’t mean the record Mississippi River flood of 2011 didn’t leave destruction in its wake.

As hundreds of Mississippi residents struggle to get back into homes and casinos say business is still down, the Army Corps of Engineers is reinforcing damaged levees as another flood season approaches.

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Cody Newsom lived in a fishing camp in Tunica Cutoff when the water came last spring. Now, he lives in a federally provided trailer miles from the water.

But he and some buddies returned one afternoon last month to the cutoff, on the unprotected side of the main river levee, to go boating on the oxbow of Tunica Lake.

“I’d love to come back,” said Newsom, whose pre-flood home was demolished by a landowner that won’t allow rebuilding. “The lake, just being around a bunch of good people, it’s fun out here. It’s like being on vacation every time you get off from work.”

Newsom launched from Nel-Win, another camp community. Residents there own their lots, but most are being required to raise their houses or stationary trailers off the ground. In two other camps, owners plan to allow only mobile trailers to avoid costly elevation requirements, Tunica County emergency management director Randy Stewart said.

According to the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency, 334 buildings flooded in Tunica County and 2,679 flooded in 12 counties combined. Insurance consultant AON Benefield estimated that the flood caused $5 billion in property and crop damage in the entire Mississippi valley, with Mississippi estimates in the hundreds of millions.

Like Newsom, J.T. Smith was displaced. The bait shop he once ran in another community is being rebuilt in Nel-Win. The structure holding the store is actually on wheels, to avoid elevating 16 to 18 feet above ground.

“We could get it out of here in two hours,” Smith said.

Although some people had flood insurance or qualified for elevation grants, that hasn’t been enough for everyone. Larry McMullen, a retiree, estimated only 10 or 11 homes in Nel-Win were occupied full-time this spring, with many unrepaired or vacant.

Nel-Win residents say those most likely to return are the cutoff’s more affluent residents. “People are putting some nice places down here,” McMullen said.

Hundreds of homes and camps on the exposed side of the levee flooded down the length of the river. But in northern Tunica County, where the county’s nine casinos are the economic lifeblood, aggressive efforts prevented much damage and companies have cleaned up what was swamped. The flood’s only reminders are a still-closed RV park at the Sam’s Town Hotel & Casino, a golf course rounding into shape and the RiverPark museum.

Officials have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to renovate the museum. Although it began hosting functions in March, exhibits won’t reopen until later in April, said Webster Franklin, president of the Tunica Convention & Visitors Bureau.

The real issue is whether the flood permanently pushed business to competitors, including casinos in West Memphis and Hot Springs, Ark.

In February, Isle of Capri Casinos Chief Financial Officer Dale Black told investors on a conference call that the Tunica market, including the firm’s Lula casino, had recovered only about half the business it lost during the flood.

Franklin said casino revenue has gone down almost 30 percent in Tunica since the recession began, costing 3,300 jobs.

“The flood happened at a time when we were already declining,” he said. Tunica struggled for months with the perception that all the casinos were closed. The county lost about $3 million in gambling taxes, and the hit rippled through the whole economy. Sales tax collections were down 28 percent in June and July combined, costing state and local governments $13 million.

Up and down the river, crests came close to or passed records set in 1927 and 1937. The massive levee system constructed by the Army Corps of Engineers held.

“This is the best test it ever had,” said Peter Nimrod, chief engineer of the Mississippi Levee District, which maintains levees between Greenville and Vicksburg.

There were strains, though. Congress allotted $140 million last year for the Vicksburg Corps district to do 81 flood-related projects in Mississippi as well as parts of Arkansas and Louisiana. For example, at Buck Chute, north of Vicksburg, water seeped under the levee, causing sand boils. Since the flood, the Corps has piled up a soil berm against the levee to push the water back, and drilled dozens of relief wells to let water through without taking along the levee’s soil.

So far, forecasts predict normal or low spring flood stages, thanks to a warm winter that left little snow to the north.

An area running from Vicksburg to the northwest along the Yazoo River is not protected by levees, and the waters of the Mississippi and Yazoo drowned lowland and farmland as far as 40 miles from the main channel of the Mississippi. Statewide, 185,000 acres of farmland are estimated to have flooded, though many farmers sprinted to raise soybeans after the water receded, reducing losses.

Harry Simmons, who owns Simmons Farm Raised Catfish in Yazoo County, fought his own private battle against the water. He saved 40 percent of his catfish ponds, his fish processing plant and his home by building dikes. But having kept out the water, he received no payments from either the federal flood insurance program or his private business interruption insurance. Simmons is a little bitter that he saved his insurers money, but they wouldn’t chip in a dime to pay for his private levees.

Still, he said he made the right choice for his pocketbook and the livelihoods of 300 farm and processing plant workers.

“We were down five weeks. It could have been six months,” Simmons said.

Also facing a heavy financial burden is Vicksburg’s Frank Johnson. The 72-year-old’s family has owned property in the city’s King Crossing community since 1945. He’s just moved back into one of three houses on his family property, but two others remain unrepaired. He’s struggling to repair a brick house, because he was unable to obtain flood insurance on it after a 2008 flood. Johnson had already renovated the house when he was told in 2009 to elevate or go without flood coverage. Now he’s trying to figure out how to lift the house without insurance money.

Though the property in a low-lying area on the north end of Vicksburg has flooded periodically throughout Johnson’s life, he says he’s rooted there.

“We’re going to weather the storm,” he said. “Our faith and belief is in God.”