City, state to some flood victims: You can’t go home again|[04/22/08]

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Gov. Haley Barbour toured flooded areas of Vicksburg and Warren County by helicopter Monday and said he will push for federal funding to provide financial relief for some residents and farmers affected. However, the governor reiterated those who live in known flood areas – such as Ford subdivision, Kings and homes along LeTourneau Road – will not qualify.

“Because this is a very significant flood, there are going to be people who have never flooded before and they’re going to qualify for some programs,” Barbour said from the tarmac of the Vicksburg Municipal Airport. “If people choose to live somewhere that they know repeatedly floods, at some point it’s not the taxpayers’ responsibility anymore. We can’t expect the taxpayers just to continue to bail people out year in and year out.”

Mayor Laurence Leyens said the city intends to meet individually with owners of residential property in the city that flooded to see if they are interested in alternatives to returning to homes known to flood.

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The river crested at 50.9 feet Saturday, and a declining stage was recorded at Vicksburg Monday for the first time since March 5 when the river was at 31.9 feet. Today the river was at 50.8 feet, with no change from Monday. The river is not expected to recede below flood stage of 43 feet for about a month, even though all stages upstream on the Mississippi and Ohio rivers were also falling today.

The Flood of 2008 rivaled 1973, when the gauge topped out 0.7 feet higher at 51.6 feet.

The slowly falling river will cause rising problems as Vicksburg officials seek to enforce the floodplain damage prevention ordinance tightened in 2003. It requires residents whose homes are damaged by more than 50 percent of the appraised market value to meet all floodplain codes before a building permit is issued and utilities may be turned on. Vicksburg Alderman Michael Mayfield, who represents the northern portions of Vicksburg affected by flooding, said many residents will not be able to afford to make such improvements, which will center on raising homes above flood levels.

Victor Gray-Lewis, city building and inspection director, said he is not looking forward to having to tell residents they won’t be able to have utilities restored unless they elevate their homes and make significant improvements.

“They’re going to want their electricity turned back on, and they’re going to have to come through my office to do it. I’m going to have to say, ‘OK, what’s the value of the home, what’s the cost of repairs – oops, sorry.’ It’s a tough situation,” he said. “Some of the properties we’re talking about are only worth $3,000 or $4,000 at market value, and it’s not going to take much damage to exceed the 50 percent mark.”

Gray-Lewis said he hopes to speak with Mississippi Emergency Management officials this week to see if there is any funding available for a buyout of some affected areas, similar to that which took place in the Hamilton Heights area in the early 1990s and in previous buyouts in the Ford subdivision and Kings areas.

At least 83 residences in Vicksburg and Warren County had their electricity turned off by Entergy due to flooding. Vicksburg emergency management officials estimate 145 residents have been displaced from 101 homes in the city.

Barbour suggested federal agencies such as the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development could provide some assistance for those who will not qualify for FEMA relief.

Leyens said he expects identifying and providing alternative housing for residents affected will be difficult, but also remained firm on his stance to eradicate homes in areas that repetitively flood.

“We need to basically abandon these areas, and accept that Mother Nature will win,” he said. “What we’ve got to do is meet with every individual in these areas and find a solution that fits for them, whether it’s Vicksburg Housing Authority or Habitat for Humanity or the City of Vicksburg simply finding some money to get these people into affordable housing. It’s going to be a very tough challenge, and I think the real story of the flood is yet to come.”

There are some residents in Ford subdivision and the Kings community who have built homes in recent years in accordance to floodplain requirements, said Gray-Lewis.

“I think those residents should serve as an example to their neighbors,” he said. “Mitigation doesn’t mean people have to move out of the area. There are three ways to mitigate the problem – elevate it, relocate it or take it down.”

Separately, it appears there will be some federal low-interest loans and funding available for area farmers who have had wheat and corn crops destroyed.

An estimated 160,000 acres of land are under water in Warren County, though it is unclear exactly how much is farmland. Additionally, 304,000 acres are under water in the Yazoo backwater area, with an additional 100,000 expected to be flooded by the time the gates of the Steele Bayou Control Structure can be opened in mid to late May.

Counties in which a minimum of 30 percent of the total cropland is destroyed by a natural disaster are eligible for relief funds through the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“Warren County will qualify, there’s no doubt in my mind,” said Andy Prosser, Mississippi Department of Agriculture spokesman. “Congress will still have to authorize any disaster payments, and those would come later on in the year or even next year.”

Assessments of the crop damage are already under way in Warren County, said County Executive Director for Warren County Farm Service Agency Rob Riggin.

“We have not completed our damage assessment yet, we’re like to wait until the water comes down a little more to get a more exact estimate in our report,” said Riggin. “After that we’ll see what the farmers are eligible for. There could be emergency loans, emergency conservation programs and possibly a presidential disaster declaration if the damage is widespread enough.”

Riggin said the final assessment of damage could be completed in the coming weeks, at which point it will be passed along to Jackson to be included in a state assessment, and then sent to the U.S. agriculture department.

While there are no federal funds available to farmers who have been delayed in planting crops due to flooded fields, Barbour said he is confident most will nonetheless be able to bring up a good crop this year once the fields can be planted. Corn and soybeans, two of the most popular crops with regional farmers, are traditionally planted by the first week of April for best harvests if possible.

“The breed of seeds we have today allow you to plant soybeans in late June or early July and make a crop, if you can get the seeds,” he said. “So, these farmers who are flooded today, they’re not necessarily out of the game for this year. A lot of this land will be farmed this year, it will make a good crop and commodities prices are very high.”

Mississippi RiverTODAY’S STAGE50.9 feet SaturdayROSE: No changeFLOOD STAGE: 43 feetSTEELE BAYOU:Landside: 91.0Riverside: 100.1To comment on pumpsMembers of the public interested in commenting on the Environmental Protection Agency’s decision on the proposed Yazoo Backwater pumps may submit by mail or online at with the Docket ID in the subject line. The mailing address is Wetlands, Coastal and Nonpoint Source Branch, Water Management Division; U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Region 4; 61 Forsyth St. SW; Atlanta, GA 30303-8960. Also, comments can be submitted at the Federal eRulemaking Portal at Instructions are available on the Web site. The EPA Docket ID for the Yazoo Backwater Project is EPA-R04-OW-2008-0179-Yazoo Pumps.Flood PhotosSlideshowGallery