Residents pack up now, and think about 35 years ago|[04/13/08]

Published 12:00 am Sunday, April 13, 2008

Members of the Lynn family spent much of Friday evening and Saturday raising appliances to the second story of Grace Lynn’s flooded home on LeTourneau Road south of Vicksburg.

The scene for the family was reminiscent of that in 1973, the last time the Mississippi River at Vicksburg topped 50 feet, eventually cresting at 51.6 feet. Flood stage at the city is 43 feet. The river was running at 49.4 feet at Vicksburg Saturday, and was predicted to rise to 49.6 feet today. The river is forecast to top the 50 foot mark on Tuesday, and crest Friday at 50.5 feet.

“I had never seen anything like it before,” Grace Lynn said of the 1973 flood. “My husband had lived on the river all his life, and he didn’t know what to do either. At first he said, ‘I’m staying,’ and I said, ‘I’m not.'”

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Back in 1973, the Lynns lived in a one-story house. Fred Lynn, her husband, worked at LeTourneau Technologies, and he continued to ferry workers back and forth to the shipyard long after the road leading to the business was flooded and impassible. The family was forced to move everything out of the house as the water continued to rise that spring, including heavy appliances and furniture, to save them from being inundated.

Having no where to go, the couple and their five children took refuge in one of the concrete homes built by Robert G. LeTourneau — founder of LeTourneau Technologies — that were on Glass Road.

“It was a chore to find a place to stay back then. The house we stayed in only had two bedrooms, but we found a way to fit,” she said.

The Lynn family spent about two months in the LeTourneau house, waiting for the water to subside far enough for them to return home. The family’s one-story, wood frame home was eventually replaced with the two-story home. Fred Lynn has since died, and Grace Lynn said she misses his confidence and guidance as she’s once again forced from her home.

“The problem is, I still don’t know what to do,” she said. “My husband is not with me anymore to help me make the decisions.”

This time around, Lynn is staying with her sister in Vicksburg, and she’s hoping it won’t again be two months before she can return home.

Along LeTourneau Road today, most of the homes are occupied by members of the extended Lynn family. At least two since 1973 have been raised higher than Grace and Fred Lynns’ home. One is on stilts, and one is built on a manmade hill.

LeTourneau itself, which builds jackup rigs for ocean exploration of oil, is nearly closed down because of the flooding. Late Monday, nearly 1,200 of the plant’s 1,300 workers were told not to come back to work until the water subsides.

The flood of 1973 in Vicksburg stands as a benchmark event in the minds of local residents. At the time, the area hadn’t experienced a major flood in more than 20 years, and many people were caught off guard when the river swelled to just more than 8 feet above flood stage at the city.

The flood displaced more than 45,000 people throughout the Delta and claimed the lives of 28, according to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers records. Here are more area residents’ memories of the historic flood.

Billy Ainsworth

Billy Ainsworth, a retired superintendent of locomotives for Kansas City Southern, remembers north-south railroad traffic being shut down in 1973 when Mississippi River waters reached 51.6 feet on the Vicksburg gauge. He said the rising waters today are not much different from what he saw 35 years ago.

“They closed the floodwall gate just north of the railroad yard, and they closed all of the floodwall gates at City Front and, I think, down the hill at the old Biscuit Company,” he remembered. “They sandbagged around International Paper at Redwood, because they had to get service to it. Basically, right now it’s just a foot lower than it was in ’73. It’s the same thing — water everywhere.”

Ainsworth, a 30-year railroad employee who retired in 1998, said east-to-west railroad traffic remained open during the 1973 flood.

Melba Parker

Melba Parker was at home alone on Mississippi 465, or Eagle Lake Road, when the water started filling up around her house in 1973.

“At first, there was panic. Then, I realized I had to change my tactics,” she said. “I was by myself. I had a boat and a motor. It was trying times. But, since I had that experience, I know what to expect.”

Her situation wasn’t much different as water swished to the bottom step of her back entrance Friday.

“There’s water all around. I have to go by boat to get to the levee,” she said.

She remembers when the road — the only route out of town — was completely washed out in the middle.

“We had to utterly rebuild the road. We had dirt hauled in,” she said. “I never understood how the middle (of the road) was washed away while the sides stayed in tact.”

Floodwaters plagued Parker and her neighbors back then for nearly a month. While they waited for the waters to recede, vehicles and cattle waited on the levee. This time, cattle have one area on the Eagle Lake side of Mississippi 465 to graze. At least for now.

“This one may top or at least equal the ’73 flood,” she said. “Water has never been in this house. In ’73, I stayed by myself and every night I’d figure out what I could do if the water came in. I have two stories, so, of course, I could go upstairs, but cooking would be out of the question.”

Dorothy Butts

If the water begins to cover Low Water Bridge Road near Eagle Lake, that’s when Dorothy Butts will know to start moving her “nice” furniture from her home on Mississippi 465 and hit the high road, she said. Until then, it’s a matter of sitting — and waiting.

“It’s just a waiting game. (The water is) not on our place yet,” she said. “I hope not to wait until I need a boat to get out.”

But, if the time comes, she’s ready.

“I have some things packed. I wanted to get some of my furniture out before the road gets blocked,” she said.

Even though she’s lived in the same house since 1964 and survived the 1973 flood, it’s a completely different scenario now. For one, it hasn’t affected her land yet.

“In 1973, that was before the Backwater Levee Project. It was just the river coming in on us then. Now, we have the levee system,” she said. “I’m just waiting to see if it gets too high to get out of here.”

She remembers how it was when the water filled her home. Her trucks and trailers had to be moved to the levee, and she had to leave.

“It was terrible — it got in my house,” she said. “At least I was fortunate enough to get my better furniture out and into storage. It was just a bad deal. My cows were trapped on the levee.”

When she came back in July, three months after the flood wreaked its havoc, she had to put a mobile home on her property.

“It was a long ordeal. I was in that mobile home for almost a year. Carpenters were scarce,” she said.

Butts feels like experiencing the flood 35 years ago has prepared her for whatever the floodwaters will do this time.

“You have to experience it. If you experience it, you learn,” she said. “It’s really just a wait and see thing.”

Edna Tarver

Across the Mississippi River, in Delta, Edna Tarver remembers her car sinking in the “squishy” ground. During the month that the water rose, flooding homes and businesses around the Mississippi River, Tarver kept a boat tied to her porch — “just in case.”

At the time, she was working at the A&P in Vicksburg and had to get to her job daily.

Even some of the more simple tasks played out like huge feats during that time, she remembers.

“You couldn’t cut the grass. It would grow so big,” she said.

Even though she no longer lives in the same house, she has noticed the “seepage” in the same area getting worse as the water continues to rise.

“It’s not like it was, though,” she said.

Otho Jones

When the waters rose in 1973, Otho Jones, a long-time Warren County Sheriff’s deputy and chief deputy, was in the trenches, trying to move people out of the most flooded areas.

“It was total chaos,” he remembered. “The water came up all of a sudden and caught people off guard. It rose faster than we could evacuate.”

Instead of being able to move people out before the floodwaters took their toll, sheriff’s deputies had to “pluck people off rooftops,” he said. “The men — they got their families out OK, but the men tried to ride out the storm. They thought it would crest and recede. Some people almost got trapped.”

Although human lives were spared in Warren County, many people lost livestock during the flooding, he said.

“We had to take care of humans first, so we were unable to retrieve a lot of livestock. It was kind of hectic,” Jones said.

Even though the crest is expected to come close to what it was in ’73, he doesn’t believe the scene will be as bad as it was back then.

“The good thing is people know the water is rising and they’re getting out,” he said. “We warned those people. We went door to door telling them that they needed to leave, but they paid no attention to us.”

Because the sheriff’s department, headed then by former Sheriff Paul Barrett, worked with a skeleton crew of about six deputies, Jones said about 40 or 50 inmates with the Mississippi State Penitentiary were brought here to place sandbags around people’s property around Eagle Lake.

“They stayed close to two weeks. That helped us out a lot,” Jones said.