Issaquena County approached about Yazoo lawsuit

Published 2:00 pm Friday, April 30, 2021

Attorneys in a federal class-action lawsuit against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers seeking compensation for damage from the 2019 flood may have another client — Issaquena County.

Plaquemine, La., attorney Patrick Pendley, who with Hattiesburg attorney John Deakle, is representing a total of 15 people in the suit, said he and Deakle met recently with the Issaquena County Board of Supervisors to discuss filing a suit for damages on the county’s behalf.

“My understanding is that they have signed a contract to hire us to recover damages to the infrastructure in Issaquena County for the roads and bridges that were washed away,” Pendley said. “We understand it was pretty significant damage in Issaquena County.”

Issaquena Board of Supervisors President Eddie Holcomb said the board talked to Pendley but did not confirm or deny that the board has hired him.

“We’re just discussing it at this point,” he said. He referred questions about the potential suit to Board Attorney Charles Weissinger, who was out of town and unavailable at the time of publication.

If the county agrees to retain Pendley and Deakle, Pendley said, a separate suit would be filed and later merged with the existing suit.

The original suit, styled “Alma Wilson, Glenn Haden, Travis Cockrell and Cranford Upton v. The United States of America” was filed Sept. 18 in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims in Washington, D.C. No trial date has been set.

The suit asked the court to order the Corps to install the pumps in the Yazoo Backwater Area and sought unspecified compensation for damages caused by the historic 2019 Yazoo Backwater Area flood — often referred to as the Forgotten Flood — leaving amounts to be determined by the court.

Pendley said the attorneys are dropping the pumps from the suit because the Corps of Engineers Vicksburg District has begun planning to install the pumps on Deer Creek.

“We’re going to move forward with the claim for damages for the clients,” he said.

The suit was filed after a March 2019 meeting between Pendley, Deakle and residents from the Yazoo Backwater Area.

At the time the suit was filed, the Corps was receiving public comments for its Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement recommending installing a pump station on Deer Creek. The Corps and the Environmental Protection Agency later approved the project.

The pump station was the final piece of the Yazoo Backwater Project authorized by Congress in 1941. The major piece of the project was the Yazoo Backwater Levee, completed in 1978. The EPA vetoed the pumps project in 2008.

The pumps were expected to move 14,000 cubic feet of water per second from the land or Delta side of the structure to the riverside if and when the Steele Bayou Control Structure gates are closed due to high river stages.

Designs had it protecting about 630,000 acres in the South Delta from flooding. Flooding to residential and non-residential structures in the Delta would be reduced by 68 percent when the pump station is completed, according to a report from the Corps.

The project took on new life during the devastating flood in 2019.

Flooding in the Yazoo Backwater area covered land in the Delta for 219 days and reached a record level of 98.2 feet during the 2019 flood, covering 548,000 total acres of land including 231,000 acres of cropland.

The flooding inundated the Eagle Lake community, forcing many residents there to leave their homes and evacuate to other areas. The water also overtopped Mississippi 465, Mississippi 16 and Mississippi 1.

Many of the backwater residents and local officials blamed the EPA’s decision to veto the construction of the pump station, which was to be built on the Steele Bayou Control Structure to help protect the South Delta from flooding.

According to the suit, “Inclusion of the pumping system was necessary to the Yazoo Backwater Project for periods when events of heavy rainwater coincide with high flood stages along the Mississippi River. In this situation, without the pumps, the Yazoo Basin essentially becomes a bathtub with no effective drainage mechanism.”

The suit claims the design, construction, and subsequent operation of the Yazoo Backwater Project and the Steele Bayou Control Structure by the Corps “resulted in the direct, natural and foreseeable flooding of Plaintiffs’ property.” Routing the drainage of the entire Yazoo Basin to the Steele Bayou Control Structure, the suit continued, “Created a massive pool of water for which there was no drain.”

Had the Yazoo been able to drain naturally or the pumps been installed or natural drainage routes been built, according to the suit, “The current flooding and taking of plaintiff’s property would not have occurred.”

The plaintiffs would have been better off and the flooding not occurred “with no intervention from the defendant,” the suit claims, adding without the Backwater Project, “the floodwater would have continued to drain naturally into the Yazoo River.”

About John Surratt

John Surratt is a graduate of Louisiana State University with a degree in general studies. He has worked as an editor, reporter and photographer for newspapers in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post staff since 2011 and covers city government. He and his wife attend St. Paul Catholic Church and he is a member of the Port City Kiwanis Club.

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