FACES OF THE FLOODS: The ferryman of Fitler details lingering effects in Issaquena County
Published 4:00 am Saturday, October 8, 2022
Faces of the Floods is a series by The Vicksburg Post that tells the stories of people impacted by catastrophic floods in the Yazoo Backwater area.
Issaquena County District 1 Supervisor Eddie Hatcher has seen much in his lifetime, but perhaps nothing was as profound as the Yazoo Backwater Flood of 2019.
Hatcher, who succeeded his father in office, acted as a ferryman, a submersible pump technician, a prison labor transporter and a rescuer during the six-month flood. The things he witnessed, especially among his older constituents — neighbors, really, in a county as small as Issaquena — are still haunting him.
“I have 86 miles of road in my district,” he said. “Out of that 86 miles of road, if you add in every little piece, I had maybe a mile that wasn’t underwater during 2019.”
Hatcher detailed some of what he witnessed in the flood to a delegation from the Biden Administration on Aug. 24 at South Delta High School in Rolling Fork.
“Mothers, they worry about everything. … I know mothers that were moved out of their homes; I’m talking about 70- and 80-year-old mothers,” Hatcher said. “They didn’t have anywhere to go, so they stayed with friends and neighbors. And they never got to go back to their houses because they worried themselves to death.”
Hatcher recalled one man in particular whose reaction to returning to what was left of his home left him in tears.
“Nobody up there, not one of you, has put an old man in a boat or a group of people in a boat and carried them home just so they could see their house,” he said on Aug. 24. “I had an old man get out of the boat, and he went through the water just fast as he could go because the boat couldn’t get all the way to dry ground.
“And what did he do? He went and sat in his swing because that’s what he’d done at home when it was dry.”
The man, he later revealed to The Post, was a gentleman named Percy Chocolate. Chocolate happened to be Hatcher’s childhood neighbor in the small South Delta community of Fitler, located approximately 30 miles from Rolling Fork and a stone’s throw from the Mississippi River and the large mainline levee.
The day Hatcher arrived to transport Chocolate and his wife to dry ground in the spring of 2019 was the last time Mrs. Chocolate would see her home. She died before she was able to return — and Hatcher said it stands to reason that she likely worried herself to death.
Before the water reached his constituents’ homes, Hatcher led a group of prisoners from house to house in an effort to construct sandbag ring levees. On his own, he worked with homeowners to make sure they had submersible pumps to drain out water that might slip through the ring levees.
In one case, he said, a mother and three children woke up to find their home had taken on water when their pump stopped working. Their sewer system wasn’t working due to being underwater, and they had no bathroom, so Hatcher worked to move a port-a-potty to their property until they found a dry place to stay.
Many of the people he helped transport to safety in 2019 are still displaced more than three years later, and as a result, Hatcher said, the already shrinking Issaquena County has lost an exponential portion of its tax base.
“As a county, we lost lots of tax dollars because there’s nobody there,” he said. “There are no houses that are there because they’re dilapidated or the flood ruined them, so you’re losing tax dollars there, and it’s just a bad situation all the way around.”
Issaquena County is the least-populous county east of the Mississippi River, and based on its per-capita income of $18,598, it is also the poorest county in the United States.
Since the floodwaters receded, Hatcher said the county has seen nominal contributions from the federal government. For example, the roads in his district were destroyed when water seeped below the asphalt and lifted it off the ground in chunks.
It’s to the point, he said, that the county is discussing the idea of reverting all damaged roads back to gravel surfaces instead of smooth pavement.
“At least when a flood comes, I can grade them and be back in business,” he said. “(We) have gotten some — very little — money from FEMA and MEMA to repair damages done to the roads.
“Issaquena County is one of the poorest counties. We have to cut corners already,” he added. “This past week, we had a board meeting. They have approved to help us with some of our roads. But the way that works is, that was 2019 and it’s 2022. We’ve been dealing with this for that period of time.”
The plan in discussion is based on a reimbursement system, Hatcher said. Once Issaquena County pays for a road repair, 75 percent would be reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency; 12.5 percent would be reimbursed by the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency.
“And then the county is on the hook for the other 12.5 percent,” he said. “Where in the world is Issaquena County going to come up with that kind of money to pay for it upfront? It’s a hard pill to swallow right now.”
It’s a cycle Hatcher said he believes will continue until the Yazoo Backwater Pumps are completed.
Other than the pumps, he said, he and his constituents are sitting ducks — and there’s not much else the government can do to help.
“Did (the government) buy sand? No. Did they say ‘Oh my goodness, we need to send sand and supplies’? No. The only thing the government can do for prevention of the floods is to put the pumps in,” Hatcher said. “If the pumps are not in, we’re at the mercy of Mother Nature. Right now, without the pumps, it’s not the fact of if it’s going to happen again; it’s when.”
If you or someone you know is a South Delta resident impacted by the Yazoo Backwater Floods, email The Vicksburg Post’s Managing Editor at firstname.lastname@example.org to share your story.