‘Prepare for the Worst, Pray for the Best’: The Vicksburg Post Presents 2021 in Review

Published 4:00 am Friday, December 31, 2021

The year began with a big chill — literally — as Vicksburg and Warren County were hit with the worst of a significant weather event not before seen in our lifetime. 

The February ice storm set records as low temperatures sent wind chills below zero degrees, broke down trees and power lines, and nearly broke Vicksburg’s water system. However, it also saw citizens helping one another, with local restaurants feeding first responders and people rescuing their neighbors from the elements. 

It began with a warning on Feb. 13: “Pray for the best, prepare for the worst.”

The predictions for ice, sleet, snow and freezing rain left local officials warning residents to stock up on essentials, stay home and stay warm. The city was shut down for nearly a week as roads became impassable. 

“My plea to the public is to stay home if you do not absolutely need to get out,” Sheriff Martin Pace said on Feb. 13. “If you do have to get out, please be careful. Drive slowly, approach bridges and overpasses with caution and remember to not brake or accelerate on icy bridges.”

The storm resulted in two known fatalities. While responding to an accident that had already occurred at mile marker 11 on Interstate 20 westbound at the beginning of the storm, local tow truck operator George Spratley Jr., 44, was killed when another driver, traveling near the accident, lost control of their vehicle on the icy road and collided with Spratley’s tow truck.

At the end of the ice storm, Pearl Deckard, 66, reportedly slipped and fell as she walked outside her home around 1 a.m. on Feb. 21. She was not found until hours later. Deckard was transported to Merit Health River Region, where she was pronounced dead in the hospital’s emergency room.

Mayor George Flaggs Jr. implemented a 24-hour curfew during the worst of the storm in an effort to reduce cars on the road and limit emergency calls. While the curfew was helpful according to Warren County Emergency Management Coordinator John Elfer, 911 calls in Warren County still exceeded 2,000 during a five-day period. 

Nearly 6,000 Entergy customers in the Warren County area were without power.

In addition to ice-blanketed trees falling and knocking down power lines, water line breaks presented a major problem. In one instance, Vicksburg firefighters delivered buckets of water to residents at the Aeolian Senior Apartments on Clay Street. 

Public Works Director Garnet Van Norman announced on Feb. 19 that, as the city’s water pressure went down, leaks in vacant homes and businesses could have been a major contributing factor. Eagle Lake Water System temporarily lost service completely due to line breaks.

To remedy some of the city’s water woes, Flaggs asked that residents voluntarily reduce water usage as crews worked to restore service.

The storm finally began to thaw on Feb. 21. 

“I could not ask for any better from our city employees, the gas department, the water department, traffic, first responders. They all did a tremendous job in hard conditions,” Flaggs said at the time. “Everyone stepped up. I’ve never seen anything like this in my lifetime in Vicksburg.”

In May, the Board of Mayor and Aldermen announced its intention to seek federal aid for storm recovery.

 

Warren County Vaccine Site serves thousands

As Warren County neared the one-year mark of the COVID-19 pandemic, hope loomed on the horizon in the form of the vaccine. 

The COVID-19 vaccine first became available to Mississippians age 75 and older on Jan. 7, 2021. However, there were only 18 high-volume vaccine sites meant to serve the entire state. On Jan. 12, availability expanded to those 65 and older and those with health conditions. 

As more vaccines became available, officials in Warren County and the city of Vicksburg worked together to advocate for a drive-thru vaccination site in the area. As supplies dwindled and then increased, local medical clinics joined the throngs of providers around the state that applied to stock doses of the vaccine in their offices.

In an effort to get as many people vaccinated as possible, Flaggs authorized the NRoute system to transport senior citizens and the handicapped to vaccine sites at no cost to the individuals. The city covered $4 per person for the service.

Medical Associates of Vicksburg was the first local office to receive vaccine doses for the public on Jan. 19. Demand for the 200 doses was so high that it crashed the provider’s phone system. 

On Jan. 21, it was announced that the Pemberton Mall parking lot would be used as a state COVID-19 drive-thru vaccination site. When the site opened on Feb. 1, Elfer said slots filled up in minutes.

“In just a few minutes, before we could even get the word out, people are already registering,” he said. 

On March 16, the COVID-19 vaccine became available for all Mississippians. 

As the one-year anniversary of COVID-19’s arrival in Warren County approached, state health officer and local physician Dr. Dan Edney commented on the speed with which the vaccine was developed and became available.

“And a year ago we had no idea how long it would take to develop a vaccine, and if we could even develop a vaccine, and now we have three highly effective vaccines,” Edney said. “Our next big hurdle to cross is to try to get vaccine rates up high enough to extinguish it that way.”

Warren County’s vaccine site closed on June 16. Since its establishment, more than 18,000 people were served. 

“​We would like to thank all of our volunteers for the outstanding job they have done at our vaccination site,” a post from Warren County Emergency Management read. “Our volunteers have been very loyal and committed to this endeavor and they deserve so much more than just a thank you. From the Warren County Emergency Management Agency, we truly appreciate you more than you will ever know, we could not have done this without each and every one of you.”

 

Yazoo Pumps Project vetoed by EPA 

November saw some developments in the saga of the Yazoo Backwater Pumps Project. 

It began with news that Rep. Bennie Thompson penned a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency, requesting a probe of the agency’s handling of the project under the Trump Administration. In 2020, the EPA announced its decision to reverse a previous veto, paving the way for the pumps to be completed after decades of devastating floods.

In his Aug. 30 letter, Thompson raised “serious issues” about EPA’s handling of the project, adding that the decision to vacate the veto “may have been issued in violation of Congressionally-mandated requirements and that critical concerns raised by career staff scientists were ignored.”

On Nov. 17, the EPA and the Biden Administration officially blocked the Yazoo Pumps Project on the grounds that the project is prohibited by EPA’s 2008 Clean Water Act Section 404(c) Final Determination. Mississippi’s U.S. Senators, Cindy Hyde-Smith and Roger Wicker, both voiced their “frustration and displeasure” over the announcement, citing the implications of continuous flooding on the routinely battered South Delta. Gov. Tate Reeves also released a statement decrying the Biden Administration. 

“It seems like every day, the Biden Administration finds a new way to fail Mississippians,” Reeves said. “The Trump Administration’s Environmental Protection Agency realized the importance of protecting the Mississippi Delta and its residents when they allowed this project to proceed. Instead, President Biden is choosing to put radical ‘environmentalists’ ahead of human lives and livelihoods. My administration will fight this decision and stop at nothing until this project gets done.”

Yazoo Backwater residents took to social media and the press to voice their opinions on the issue, with many blaming what they described as “anti-Trump politicians” for the blocking of the project.

The Mississippi Levee Board described the Biden Administration’s determination as based on “fundamentally flawed findings,” in a letter released on Dec. 15. 

On Dec. 16, the Associated Press released a story claiming the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had canceled the pumps project following the EPA’s reversal, but Maj. Gen. Diana Holland confirmed to The Vicksburg Post that this was not the case.

“The project has not been canceled by the Corps of Engineers and it is still authorized for construction by Congress,” Holland said. “However, the EPA recently concluded that their ‘2008 Section 404(c)’ determination applies to the latest proposed plan covered by the Record of Decision that I signed on Jan. 15, 2021.

“I simply withdrew that document until we are able to further work with EPA and other Federal, state and local stakeholders to address any outstanding concerns.”

Peter Nimrod, the chief engineer for the Mississippi Levee Board, echoed Holland’s comments.

“The Corps has not given up on the pumps project; they haven’t given up on it at all,” he said.

 

Penny Jones named Vicksburg’s first female Chief of Police

Penny Jones, a 22-year veteran and a deputy chief in the Vicksburg Police Department, was announced on June 29 as Mayor George Flaggs Jr.’s selection to succeed Milton Moore as police chief.

A Vicksburg native, Jones joined the Vicksburg Police Department in 1999. Besides serving as deputy chief, she has been a patrol commander, domestic violence officer, senior patrol officer, narcotics officer and criminal and crime scene investigator.

She has a bachelor of science in liberal arts and a master of science in criminal justice, both from Alcorn State University. Her daughter, Alexis Hall, is also a Vicksburg police officer.

Jones has been recognized as National Law Enforcement Officer of the Year and received the Merit Award for Excellent Arrest and the Silver Star for Bravery from the American Police Hall of Fame.

In the first six months of her tenure, Jones spearheaded “Operation Blitz,” a three-phase initiative aimed at targeting crime including drug offenses, discharging of firearms and rounding up those with outstanding warrants.

Operation Blitz also included the establishment of mobile command centers, where officers of the VPD targeted specific neighborhoods and spent days working on the streets instead of staging operations from the police department building on South Street.

In early December, Jones was voted The Vicksburg Post’s Woman of the Year as part of the reader’s choice awards.

Jones’ term is four years, but it could run longer. Whenever her tenure ends, she said she hopes people will review it and say, “I helped the citizens in the community to get to a better place. That she served and protected the way that a chief should have, that I accomplished the goals,” she said.

“I want them to read the definition of a chief and say that was Penny Jones. That was the chief. That they’ll know it was me.”

 

City of Vicksburg approves new animal shelter plan after years of debate

After years of debate and searching for the right location, Vicksburg is getting a new animal shelter. 

On Oct. 8, the Vicksburg Board of Mayor and Aldermen officially approved the plan for the new shelter, which will be located at 4845 U.S. Highway 61 South. This property and the existing building that will be used for the shelter were donated by the Ernest Thomas family for the purpose of building the animal shelter. 

City officials have been considering a new animal shelter for several years. The current shelter is 50 years old and sits on a tract of land on Old Mill Road adjacent to the Vicksburg Fire Department’s training center, in the Kings community.

The current shelter is in a flood zone and is subject to being surrounded by flash flooding. It was threatened by the 2019 flood and animals had to be evacuated in the 2011 flood. City officials have considered several potential sites, including city property in a section of Cedar Hill Cemetery off Sky Farm Avenue. In 2021, the shelter reached peak capacity more than once. 

On Nov. 24, the board approved a total of $1 million for the project, which will take an estimated 13 months to complete. Approximately $97,750 of that total cost will go toward design and construction administration, and as much as  $19,550 will be used for other expenses. The City is working with Shelter Planners of America of Arlington, Texas, to prepare the plans and specifications for the project

Mayor George Flaggs Jr. said the project will be paid for through American Relief Plan Act (ARPA) funds, and that the project falls under ARPA’s parameters as a “loss of revenue” item.

 

Entergy to shut down Warren County’s Baxter Wilson power plant in 2022

On Nov. 16, The Vicksburg Post was first to report that Entergy plans to close the Baxter Wilson power plant on May 31, 2022. 

The plant’s deactivation came as Entergy announced a decision to shut down some of its aging natural gas power generating plants over the next five years and expand its use of renewable energy sources, such as solar power.

Entergy said in a news release that it will add 500 megawatts of renewable power by 2025 and another 500 megawatts by 2027. Entergy Mississippi is calling its expansion of renewable sources EDGE, which stands for Economic Development with Green Energy.

The shutdown is anticipated to cost Warren County a total of $3,258,809 in tax revenue. That’s $1,408,085 for the school district, $1,089,734 for the county and $760,990 for the city.

The city of Vicksburg is expected to lose $760,990 in property tax revenue from the closure.

The 55-year-old power plant was built in 1967 as a dual fuel plant to burn both fuel oil and natural gas.

 

Harper reinstated as county prosecutor after federal ruling

Warren County Prosecutor Ken Harper, on Sept. 14, 2020, sent a one-sentence letter to the board of supervisors: “Please accept this letter as my resignation as Warren County Prosecuting Attorney effective September 14, 2020, at 5:00 p.m. Sincerely, Ken Harper.” 

He attempted to rescind that letter one week later. What happened in 2021 was a rollercoaster of opinions, rulings and interactions that resulted in Harper being reinstated, but not without issue.

On Jan. 14, 2021, it was reported that Youth Court Judge Marcie Southerland sought a permanent youth court prosecutor. Then Stephen McMillin, who initially lost to Harper in the election for county prosecutor, was appointed interim prosecuting attorney for Warren County. 

Harper filed a federal lawsuit against the Warren County Board of Supervisors on Jan. 29, seeking to be reinstated immediately as the county’s prosecuting attorney, to receive all accrued back pay and benefits, damages for the county violating his constitutional rights, reasonable costs and expenses, including attorney’s fees, and “other and further relief as this Court deems equitable and just.”

Then, on July 16, it was announced that Judge Carlton Reeves of the United States District Court, Southern District of Mississippi, ruled Harper should be “reinstated immediately” as Warren County Prosecutor. Harper said at the time he didn’t know if he would go back in time and change anything.

“I want to do the very best job I can, as I was attempting to at the time; to continue to serve,” he said. “When I first wrote the letter, I stated when I withdrew it that I’d acted in haste. It was my fault and I regretted that part of it.

“As far as doing anything over, I don’t know what I would do over.”

However, upon being reinstated, Harper on Aug. 27 was accused of “failing to do his job” by Southerland. Southerland addressed the court, explaining that Harper stated he should not appear in county court because he does not believe that county court has jurisdiction to handle preliminary hearings. However, since being reinstated, he’d received his full salary and benefits for the position.

As a result, at least two felony cases were dismissed in Warren County, one for residential burglary and the other for possession of methamphetamine.

“This court will not allow Mr. Harper, or any other attorney in Warren County, to circumvent the process of county court. As the county court judge, it is my responsibility for the orderly administration of justice,” Southerland said. “From this day forward, if it has not been known or done prior to, no member of the bar or no one will interfere with the orderly administration of justice in the county court of Warren County.”

Harper did not respond to requests for comment. 

In December, The Post confirmed through the District Attorney’s Office that Harper has satisfactorily resumed his duties as county prosecutor.

 

Search continues for hunters missing since December 2020

The search for hunters Zeb Hughes, 21, from Wesson, and 16-year-old Gunner Palmer of Brookhaven, began on Dec. 3, 2020, and continued throughout 2021. 

The hunters did not return from a planned hunting trip after launching their boat near LeTourneau Landing.
The search for the hunters was hampered by numerous weather and water issues including the February ice storm, a rising Mississippi River and rough conditions. High winds and a white wall of fog halted search efforts for the first time at the two-month mark of the search, but the Warren County Sheriff’s Office worked with agencies around the state to push through and keep looking for signs of the missing hunters.

Hughes and Palmer have not been found.

On the one-year anniversary of Hughes’ and Palmer’s disappearance, The Associated Press reported the hunters’ fathers were still spending time on the river, but instead of solely searching for their sons, they were working to make peace with what had happened and find comfort on the unforgiving water.

“I’m glad God took him while he was doing something he loved,” Med Palmer said. “I never thought hunting would take my son, but we made a lot of memories out hunting. That’s how I came to terms with it. That’s what life is about — making memories. When they’re gone, all you’ve got left are those memories.

“We’ll all have to move on, but we’ll never forget them. I reckon the rest of my life I’ll be coming out here periodically.”

 

Academy of Innovation students celebrate first day in new building

After two years of construction, the new Academy of Innovation building opened to students, signaling a new era for the Vicksburg Warren School District.

The new building, which is located on the corner of Mission 66 and Rosa A. Temple Drive, cost $16,454,000 and was made possible by the passage of an $83 million facilities bond passed in March 2018. 

“It’s just so much more open and a lot bigger and brighter. Overall it looks completely better,” AOI student Cambria Lasalle said, describing her reaction when walking into the new school for the first time. 

A student-led ribbon-cutting ceremony was held on Sept. 1, during which city, county and state officials joined the public in a tour of the new facility. Architect Gary Bailey, who led design of the school, called it the “culmination of a career.”

“It’s a direct response to the creative learning that’s going on inside this building,” Bailey, of Dale Bailey Architects, said. “These kids and their teachers are all about collaboration and working together to solve problems, and the building is a solution that respects that.”

The new Academy of Innovation building features innovative designs such as glass walls that slide back and create more open spaces for students, exposed plumbing, electrical and ductwork so students can learn about those processes, and an abundance of nontraditional learning environments.

“When you get an opportunity to retool education the way you wish it would have been the whole time, that was the impetus of the beginning of the Academy of Innovation,” VWSD Superintendent Chad Shealy said. “The teachers and Jason McKellar did an amazing job transforming the inside, and it’s great to have a building that matches the things that have been going on at the AOI.”

 

Purks-Golding Family YMCA opens to the public

In an effort to meet the needs of the community, the Vicksburg YMCA completed its expansion project in 2020. Due to COVID-19, however, the occasion wasn’t celebrated until 2021.

The $5.8 million project, which added about 15,000 square feet to the facility’s original 36,000-square-foot footprint, includes two multipurpose rooms and a full-size gymnasium. It also doubled the space of the YMCA’s fitness center.

The expansion was designed to serve more children in the community, which during the pandemic allowed the YMCA to continue with its after-school programs.

“This is really a one-of-a-kind YMCA facility and I think this is a facility that Vicksburg will be proud of for the next 25 years,” YMCA Director Phillip Doiron said. “This speaks highly to all the volunteers that have spent countless hours working to design it and to those who worked to raise money for it.” 

Terri Frazier, Anna Guizerix, Tim Reeves and John Surratt contributed to this report.