FACES OF THE FLOODS: Windham shares teenage account of 2019 Yazoo Backwater Flood

Published 4:00 am Sunday, November 20, 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.

Fourth-generation Issaquena County resident Harlie Beth Windham was 15 and 16 years old when the Yazoo Backwater Flood devastated her community.

While other children were preparing to get out of school for the summer, applying for jobs or completing college applications, Windham worked alongside her father (recently elected Sheriff Waye Windham) and spent hours filling and delivering sandbags to her neighbors in need. It’s an experience Windham said she’ll never forget and one that forced her to mature faster than she’d thought.

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“The 2019 flood was probably the worst thing I’ve seen in my 20 years of living in Issaquena County,” Windham said. “It was very troubling and something you wouldn’t have ever thought would’ve happened.”

Windham, who was a sophomore when the seven-month flood started, said her family’s home was one of the few residences spared by the floodwaters. As such, she said, she was inspired by her father’s passion for community service and went to work alongside him.

When she normally would’ve helped him work their 2,500-acre farm, she instead found herself faced with new experiences and at times, danger. Approximately 2,000 acres of farmland they normally planted was underwater, she said, so the Windhams joined alongside their neighbors in a grassroots effort to save their homes and roadways from the rising tides.

“We live about 10 miles from the levee, and it’s about 2 miles behind the levee to the river, so we were okay,” she said. “Now, getting toward the south end of the county, it got bad.

“Your normal summer as a kid would be going to the lake, fun things, but I spent two weeks sandbagging at the Valley Park elevator,” she added. “That was my work every day. He’d call first thing in the morning to see who needed help, and for two weeks I sandbagged with people from Vicksburg, Issaquena County, Sharkey County, anybody who’d come.”

During the 2019 flood, the grain elevator at the heart of the Valley Park community became a sort of gathering place for residents and independent volunteers that came to help flood victims. Dump trucks of sand would be hauled in, and the volunteers, who worked alongside National Guardsmen and prisoners, would fill and distribute the sandbags assembly line-style.

Once a trailer or flatbed truck was filled with sandbags, Windham, her father and local government officials, among others, would transport sandbags to homes in the area and help build ring levees around homes.

A ring levee, as the name implies, is a circular structure designed to keep water out and keep the land within the levee dry. But, as Windham pointed out, it’s not as simple as stacking sandbags. A successful ring levee needs to be placed on a vapor barrier such as Visqueen and wrapped in a similar barrier, to seal the levee for optimal protection.

Water will still inevitably break through the structure, so residents with ring levees are also encouraged to have a submersible pump on-hand to pump any water that breaches the levee back out of their yard.

“It’s what had to be done,” she said. “I do think the sandbags, and us doing that, mattered to people, because they had nothing else to protect them.”

At one point, Windham recalled, she and her fathers took turns swimming underwater in an effort to save a community member’s home. The home, she said, was beautiful. But unfortunately, it was in Fitler, a levee-bordering community hardest hit by the 2019 flood.

“There was a man named Mr. Mack Shorter. He lived in a beautiful house, and the water had finally gotten high enough that we had to build levees,” Windham said. “Me and my father went down there and built a levee. The water was disgusting; you had no idea what you were in.

“But at one point, we had to swim to get a relift pump into his yard. Me and my dad were taking turns swimming underwater to get the mud that had clogged up in it,” she added. “And we had to act so fast, because the water was just coming slowly into the house. I remember seeing his wife, Ms. Hazel. She had put so much work into that yard, and she was so distraught.”

Although the memories of comforting her close friends who lost their homes and witnessing mass destruction in the wake of the flood will stay with her forever, Windham said she still runs into people who have no idea about the chronic flooding in the South Mississippi Delta.

A student at Mississippi Delta Community College studying precision agriculture, Windham said she routinely has to explain the reality of life in floodwaters in the South Delta.

“This year, a girl from Arkansas and I were talking about flooding, and she was like, ‘Do what?'” she said. “And I told her, yes, we had six feet of water that submerged our fields, people’s houses. She was stunned that it even happened. She said ‘I’m literally right across the river from y’all, and I’ve never heard of this.’

“I was stunned that she didn’t know,” Windham added. “It kind of makes you feel like we don’t get heard enough. We’re literally right across the river. You’d think people would know how awful it was. It doesn’t always sit right with you, but it’s always good to tell somebody about it.”

Arkansas is one of the states listed in the Mississippi River and Tributaries System, enacted under the Flood Control Act of 1928, that has its control structures completed. The Yazoo Backwater Project, however, has remained incomplete since 1978 when the Yazoo Backwater Pumps were not completed.

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 anna.guizerix@vicksburgpost.com to share your story.