River ‘in pretty good shape’ as it nears crest

Published 12:00 am Monday, April 5, 2010

As some continued to deal with the effects of last year’s spring flooding, the Mississippi River rose slightly today and is expected to climb throughout the week to a crest Saturday at a foot below flood stage of 43 feet.

However, any significant rain over Arkansas, north Mississippi and Tennessee this week could bump up the forecast to flood stage, said Marty Pope, senior service hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Jackson.

“The key, in the short term, is going to be what happens in the Arkansas and Tennessee valleys — that’s the only thing that would turn us around,” said Pope, who noted only a slim chance of measurable rains over those areas in the coming days. “Right now, I’d say we’re in pretty good shape.”

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This morning, the river was 40.5 feet at Vicksburg, a rise of 0.1 foot in a 24-hour period. The Lower Mississippi River Forecast Center in Slidell, La., is calling for the river to crest Saturday at 42 feet. The river crested at Memphis Sunday and is forecast to top out below flood stage at Helena on Tuesday, Arkansas City on Thursday and Greenville on Friday.

Warren County Road Manager Richard Winans said this morning only “the really low roads” are expected to be affected by the river. Chickasaw Road — the gravel road connecting with Kings Point Ferry just outside the northern city limits — is partially underwater, he said, and nearby Long Lake Road probably will take on water soon.

Kings Point Ferry, however, remains open, and Winans said county officials plan to hold off on closing it if the river forecast holds. Ferry operations are normally ceased when the river tops 40 feet.

Mississippi 465, which connects U.S. 61 North with the Eagle Lake community, and LeTourneau Road in southern Vicksburg flood at about 46 feet.

This is the second significant rise in the river this year. Shortly after 6 inches of snow fell over Vicksburg on Feb. 12, the river crept up to an early season crest of 41 feet, which left river forecasters warning of a high potential for an even greater spring rise. Pope said some of those concerns have subsided.

“Essentially, almost all of the snow melt is out of the system now,” he said, “and we’re back to watching rainfall over the upper Mississippi and Ohio river basins for long-term indications of what the river is going to do here. We’re in much better shape than we were a month ago.”

In the most flood-prone areas north of Vicksburg, including the Ford, Waltersville and Kings communities, water is not a problem. However, the effects of spring flooding from the past two years is visible everywhere.

More than a dozen homes on Ford Road and Williams Street have been vacated, boarded up or marked for demolition by the city since spring flooding in 2008 — which produced the highest river stage the city has seen since 1973, when it topped out at 50.9 feet. Spring flooding last year was less severe, but still produced a crest 4.5 feet over flood stage.

Following the 2008 flood, city officials had to step up enforcement regulations to stem repetitive claims on the taxpayer-subsidized National Flood Insurance Program. Local governments must not allow any new construction or substantial repairs to structures in known flood areas.

To reduce claims, the regulations restrict residents from having utilities restored to any property damaged by more than 50 percent of its preflood value. Utilities may only be restored if the home is elevated to meet minimum flood plain regulations. Most homeowners, however, complained they had no money to elevate their homes, the majority of which have been passed down through generations of families and have been flooded multiple times. 

The city made a deal with a handful of homeowners that bypassed the regulations in April last year, whereby the homeowners signed away all future rights to collect on flood losses in exchange for permission to return to their homes.

Four homeowners in the area have also accepted a federal buyout of their properties through the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program. The program uses public funds to buy structures in flood areas and pay a relocation stipend. The land purchased falls into city hands and may not to be used for construction. It can be developed only for public use, such as park space.

A few residents have found the means to elevate their homes. A crew of home movers from Brandon and Hazlehurst who began elevating a Ford Road home last week are hoping to have the job finished early this week. The home’s owner declined comment, but confirmed she was elevating her home with the help of a flood insurance payment.

Meanwhile, even further north of Vicksburg, residents and farmers in the Yazoo Backwater Area are also dry for the most part.

The four, 30-foot-wide gates of Steel Bayou — the lone drainage point for the 4,093 square miles of levee-locked farmland and forest known as the Yazoo Backwater Area — were forced closed by the rising river on March 18.

As of this morning, Steel Bayou was holding about 7 feet of water out of the backwater area, with the riverside stage measuring 88.1 feet and the landside 81.1 feet. Normal water stage for the backwater area is 69 feet, and crops begin going underwater at about 86 feet.

“If this is all it does, everybody will be tickled,” said Waylon Hill, who for years has kept a close watch on the river and backwater area as civil engineering technician with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Water Control Division.

With the gates of Steel Bayou closed, however, any rainfall over the backwater area will pond inside the levee. With no rain, Hill estimated the gates of Steel Bayou would be opened around April 20.

“Unless we get some significant rain and the landside rises, then it will be sooner,” he said.

The forecast calls for a 30 percent chance of rain over the backwater area on Wednesday, but sunny skies are expected for the most part through the weekend.

In 2009, the backwater area saw the worst flooding since 1997 and the third-highest landside water stage since the surrounding levee system was completed in 1978. Topping out at 93.7 feet inside the gates of Steel Bayou, floodwaters covered an estimated 394,000 acres of land in the backwater area. In 2008, the landside water stage reached 92.3 feet during spring flooding.

Contact Steve Sanoski at ssanoski@vicksburgpost.com