Mississippi River crests in Vicksburg; one drowning death

Reuters News
Posted: May 20, 2011 11:04 AM

By Meryl Dakin

VICKSBURG, Miss (Reuters) - When Diana Gray and Clyde Harris were finally able to spot their home across the floodwaters of the freshly crested Mississippi River, Harris simply sighed and said, "Honey, that trailer is under water."

"It's over the doors," he said. "That's it. It's over. Damn."

The Mississippi River crested on Thursday at a record 57.1 feet in Vicksburg, the culmination of weeks of high water that displaced hundreds and destroyed entire neighborhoods. The previous record, 56.2 feet, was set in 1927 at Vicksburg, the historic site of a pivotal Civil War battle in 1863.

There has been at least one death associated with the flood: Walter Cook, 69, of Vicksburg, died Thursday morning from a brain injury due to drowning, coroner Doug Huskey told Reuters. He was found in the floodwaters on Tuesday and was taken to a hospital, where he later died, Huskey said.

There have been remarkably few injuries or deaths elsewhere from the flooding, partly because of the slow rise of the swollen Mississippi River, giving residents time to evacuate.

The waters began steadily rising at the end of April at a pace of about one foot per day, tapering off during the past week and finally cresting. Some families in Vicksburg protected their houses with homemade levees. Others simply moved as soon as the water hit their lawns.

"Make no mistake about it: This river behind me is one of the most treacherous rivers in the world," Vicksburg Mayor Paul Winfield said at a press conference in front of the Mississippi River Bridge. He added: "But I am confident in the works by our Corps members," referring to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The crest of the river does not signal the end of the flooding. Colonel Jeffrey Eckstein, commander of the Vicksburg District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said at the press conference that the levels will remain steady for the next week and then begin to recede. Not until mid-June will residents be able to begin reconstruction, he said.

Earlier this week, officials feared that the Yazoo Backwater Levee would be overtopped. That did not happen, but the levees were damaged and are under an extreme amount of pressure, so measures will be taken to restore them before the next flood season, said Major General Michael Walsh, commander of the Mississippi Valley Division of the Corps.

"The loss of life and property has been negligible given the magnitude of this event," Richard George, a member of the board of the Warren County Supervisors, said at the press conference. Vicksburg is in Warren County.

But for Gray and Harris and many of their Vicksburg neighbors, the damage was devastating. On Thursday, the couple stood at the edge of the floodwaters, surrounded by toys, furniture, and clothes that had floated out from the inundated houses. They looked toward the roof of their trailer -- the only part now visible.

Several weeks ago, the couple spent $4,000 to raise the trailer six feet off the ground. "We should have moved it," Harris told Reuters. "Waste of money."

They did not have flood insurance.

Sandra and David Clark did have insurance on their home in the same neighborhood, but not on any of their belongings. "We lost our pool, our sheds, our furniture - I'd estimate $25,000," Clark told Reuters.

Since their home flooded earlier this month, they have been staying in homes provided by their employer, but they return to their home every day by rowboat, taking pictures to record the damage.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency allows those affected to apply for grants that cover the damages sustained to their property.

Marcos Mendoza's home is above the floodwater, but faces his neighbors' submerged homes. Mendoza, who is from Mexico, has lived and worked as a welder in Vicksburg for four years. His workplace has been cut off by flood waters, leaving him out of work for the past three weeks, he said, along with hundreds of other employees, many of whom are also from Mexico.

"They just want to go," he told Reuters. "To Morgan City, New Orleans, Texas. Me, I want to go back to Mexico."

(Editing by Corrie MacLaggan and Greg McCune)