Tragedy & triumph: River City sees major ups and downs in 2023

Published 9:43 am Saturday, December 30, 2023

Tornado levels Rolling Fork

Life in Rolling Fork was turned upside down March 24 when an EF5 tornado struck the South Delta, leaving 17 people dead —13 in Rolling Fork — and causing widespread destruction in the South Delta.

According to a preliminary report from the National Weather Service, the storm was classified as a  “high end EF4” tornado with winds of 195 mph. The tornado began in Issaquena County at 7:57 p.m. southeast of Mayersville and ended at 9:08 p.m. in Holmes County.

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In Rolling Fork, the tornado tore through the town like a runaway train, damaging and destroying buildings and trees as it made its way northeast.

The storm’s effect on the surrounding area was immediate as local and state officials, including units from the Warren County and Issaquena County sheriffs’ offices, Warren County Emergency Management and Vicksburg Fire Department Ambulances, assisted first responders in Rolling Fork. Vicksburg firefighters volunteered to relieve Rolling Fork firefighters so they could assist in the recovery.

Some storm survivors evacuated to Vicksburg hotels and some injured were taken to River Region Medical Center.

In the wake of the storm, President Joe Biden and First Lady Dr. Jill Biden visited the area with Biden describing the devastation saying, “This is tough stuff.”

Locally, churches and civic organizations began drives to collect food, water and other necessities for the survivors and collected toys for Christmas for children in Rolling Fork and residents also received aid from government agencies as the cleanup and recovery continues.

 Vicksburg Warren School District retains “B” letter grade

For the second year, the Vicksburg Warren School District earned a B letter grade from the Mississippi Department of Education.

The school district received its B grade after jumping from a D in the 2018-2019 school year. It was one of 47 districts in Mississippi to earn a B grade.

“We are proud of the hard work our teachers, students and staff put into achieving excellence on the state tests. Our principals, district leaders and school board members have done an outstanding job of supporting learning in our district, and it shows in our great results,” said Superintendent Dr. Tori Holloway. “Thank you to our community partners and families who support our district; we could not be successful without your support.”

Statewide, 87 percent of schools and 91 percent of districts earned a grade of C or higher, an improvement from 2021-2022, when approximately 81 percent of schools and 87 percent of districts were rated C or higher.

The school district’s letter grades by school are:

Warren Central High School: A

Vicksburg High School: B

Bovina Elementary School: A

Redwood Elementary School: A

Bowmar Avenue Elementary School: B

Beechwood Elementary School: B

Sherman Avenue Elementary School: B

South Park Elementary School: B

Warrenton Elementary School: B

Dana Road Elementary School: C

Warren Central Intermediate School: C

Vicksburg Intermediate School: D

Warren Central Junior High School: D

Vicksburg Junior High School: F

The state did not rate River City Early College and the Academy of Innovation; the scores are shown at each student’s zoned school.

 City, Jacques go to court over nuisance accusation

A dispute between the City of Vicksburg and the owners of Jacques Bar ended up in court as city officials filed a petition in 9th Chancery District Court to have Jacques declared a public nuisance and closed permanently.

The city closed the bar in July in the wake of two shootings that occurred in the parking lot adjacent to Jacques: the first shooting on May 6 left four of the nightclub’s security guards wounded. The second, on July 5, involved more than 100 shots fired that hit several vehicles in the parking lot, the floodwall behind it and broke a window at the Vicksburg Convention Center.

City officials on July 24 filed the petition to declare Jacques’ a public nuisance after Jacques’ owner Jay Parmegiani chose not to sign a memorandum of understanding with the city by a city-mandated July 24 signing deadline of 3 p.m. The city amended its petition on July 27, court records show.

The case was transferred to Indianola after Chancellor Vicki R. Barnes, who presides over the chancery court in Warren County, recused herself and Chancellor Debra M. Giles heard the case.

Giles in August granted a temporary restraining order to close Jacques, and in November granted a motion to dissolve filed by the bar’s owners, Jay and Kara Parmegiani, and owners of The Mulberry Vicksburg (which rents space to the Parmegianis for the bar), ruling the City of Vicksburg’s preliminary injunction was void.

The owners of Jacques have filed suit against the Vicksburg mayor, aldermen and police chief for violation of due process, malicious prosecution and defamation.

The suit filed in Warren County Circuit Court by plaintiffs Refined South Restaurant Group LLC and Jean-Jacques Parmegiani and Kara Parmegiani, owners of the nightclub, seeks damages of at least $1 million related to the ongoing legal battle that left the nightclub shuttered for four months. Mayor George Flaggs Jr., Aldermen Alex Monsour and Michael Mayfield and police chief Penny Jones are named as defendants and a jury trial is requested. Jacques has reopened.

 City, county form youth development center

The shooting death of a Vicksburg teenager served as the catalyst for the development of a center where troubled youth and their parents can find help.

The Vicksburg-Warren County Youth Development Center was the recommendation of a committee appointed in February by Mayor George Flaggs Jr. to look at solutions for youth violence in the city and county.

Flaggs in February announced a crackdown on youth violence and appointed the committee in the wake of the Jan. 30 shooting death of 13-year-old Carleone Woodland.

Center Executive Director Dr. Susie Calbert said the Youth Development Center, which opened Aug. 1 in the former Vicksburg-Warren Chamber of Commerce building on Mission 66, serves as a centralized location for youth and their families looking for assistance in addressing problems.

“We can assess the family’s needs and we refer them out to all the great organizations that we have here to provide services to families, kind of like a clearing house,” she said.

The center, which receives funding from United Way of West Central Mississippi and Champions, Vicksburg’s health literacy program, is applying for a $2 million U.S. Justice Department Office of Justice Programs grant spread out over three years for a community-based violence intervention and prevention initiative.

Corps Vicksburg District 150th anniversary

Employees at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Vicksburg District joined local officials, residents and Division retirees to celebrate the Vicksburg District’s 150th anniversary at its headquarters on Halls Ferry Road in August.  

The event featured comments by Vicksburg Mayor George Flaggs, Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann and District commander Col. Christopher Klein and video presentations on the District’s history and the experiences of retired employees.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) Vicksburg District is engineering solutions to the nation’s toughest challenges, USACE officials say. It encompass a 68,000-square-mile area across portions of Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana that holds nine watersheds and incorporates approximately 460 miles of mainline Mississippi River levees. 

The Corps are engaged in hundreds of projects, and have approximately 1,100 personnel.

ERDC 25th anniversary

In September, the Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC) celebrated its 25th anniversary.

Returning for the celebration was former director of the Coastal and Hydraulics Laboratory at the then-U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Waterways Experiment Station on Halls Ferry Road Dr. James Houston. Houston said he was proud of the work that has been done by the ERDC over the last quarter-century.

“If you just track ERDC when it was WES and you kept tracking how much money it brings in, how many people; the job it was doing, it always grew no matter what,” Houston said. “Even though there were times — sometimes there was war, sometimes there was peace. Sometimes we had big civil works projects, sometimes we didn’t, but we always increased because ERDC does a sensational job for its customers.”

The ERDC was formed as an organization that consolidated the Army’s research labs under one umbrella to meet its changing technical needs.

Vicksburg police responded to 10 homicides in 2023, an increase of seven from 2022.

The deaths include:

  • Carleone Woodland, 13, of Vicksburg, was shot in the chest and killed just before midnight Jan. 30 in the 800 block of Speed Street, near Washington Street.

His death resulted in the development of the Vicksburg-Warren County Youth Development Center to help reduce juvenile violence.

  • Shemar Jashad Smith, 22, of Vicksburg, was shot in the 100 block of Kings Drive in north Vicksburg April 13 at about 9:40 p.m. When police officers arrived on the scene, they found Smith in the 200 block of Walters Street suffering from multiple gunshot wounds.
  • Demarcus Smith, 25, of Vicksburg, was shot May 10. Officers responding to the 2800 block of Ken Karyl Avenue for a reported shooting at 6:04 p.m. May 10 found Smith suffering from gunshot wounds. He was flown to University of Mississippi Medical Center where he later died from his injuries.
  • Shirray Harris, 46, of Vicksburg, was shot about 2:19 a.m. at the Circle K convenience store, 4150 Washington St. Police officers were responding to the convenience store about a shooting found Harris lying in the parking lot.
  • Dapeytric Coleman, 21, was killed in a June 1 shooting on Martha Street. He was pronounced dead at the scene from multiple gunshot wounds.
  • Kelvion Winston, 26, of Fayette, was killed June 8. Police officers responding to a call about a shooting found the victim Winston, 26 of Fayette, suffering from a gunshot wound. He was taken by ambulance to Merit Health River Region but died from his injuries.
  • Vicksburg police officers responding to a report on June 10 about a man lying in the street found Edward Stowers, 74, of Vicksburg, suffering from a gunshot wound. Stowers was pronounced dead at the scene by Warren County Coroner Doug Huskey.
  • Preston Winston Jr., 22, of Vicksburg, was shot and killed on Cherry Street July 18. Vicksburg police officers responding to a call of a shooting at the intersection of Cherry Street and Harrison Street found Wilson suffering from a gunshot wound.

He was pronounced dead at the scene by Warren County Coroner Doug Huskey.

  • Brendyn Carmen, 20, was found dead in his car from multiple gunshot wounds July 30 near the intersection of Clay and First North streets, according to information from Vicksburg police.

According to police reports, Carmen was found at approximately 1:32 a.m. Sunday by a Warren County Sheriff’s deputy who noticed a blue Nissan Maxima wrecked on First North Street near its intersection with Clay Street. Carmen was pronounced dead at the scene by Warren County Coroner Doug Huskey.

  • Aaliyah Sanders, 21, of Vicksburg, was shot and killed in her car Nov. 17 in what Vicksburg Police believe was an act of domestic violence.

According to police reports, officers responding about 9:44 p.m. to a call about a shooting in the 2700 block of Halls Ferry Road arrived to find 21-year-old behind the wheel of a grey sedan suffering from a gunshot wound.

Sanders was pronounced dead at the scene by Warren County Coroner Doug Huskey.

Several deaths were reported in Warren County:

  • A 3-year-old child boy drowned April 21 after he and his 5-year-old brother wandered from their home.

The children went missing that Friday morning near Stenson Road and Old Highway 27 in Warren County. Sheriff Martin Pace said the child’s body was found in a pond near the area of the disappearance.

“At about 9:30 a.m., sheriff’s deputies responded to a call on Old Highway 27,” Pace said. “The caller reported that a child, approximately 5 years of age, had just appeared at her home. She had no idea where the child had come from.”

Authorities later located the children’s mother and her boyfriend at a home in the area and the couple did not know the children were missing. Deputies later found the 3-year-old’s body in a pond. The 5-year-old was turned over to Child Protective Services, and the couple taken in for questioning.

  • Keon Williams, 21, of Vicksburg, was killed July 1 in an early morning shooting at Azalea Cove Apartments, 902 Blossom Lane. Warren County sheriff’s deputies responding to a call of shots fired found three people suffering from gunshot wounds. Williams was shot in the head and leg, and an 18-year-old female and an 18-year-old male were also each shot in the leg.

The 18-year-olds were taken directly to the University of Mississippi Medical Center, while Williams was taken to Merit Health River Region then flown to UMMC where he died from his injuries.

  • Charles “C.J.” Brooks Jr., 23, was killed Aug. 18, when he was shot in the 1200 block of Wright Road. Sheriff’s deputies responding to a call that someone had been shot arrived to find Brooks suffering from a gunshot wound to the head. He was pronounced dead at the scene.
  • A man and a woman were killed Nov. 7 in an apparent murder-suicide at Eagle Lake.

Warren County Sheriff Martin Pace said the suspected shooter was Steven Junior Craft, 41 of Simpson County. Craft had multiple domestic violence charges in the past, some of which were against the woman he killed.

The murder victim was Gabrielle Summer Tatum, 28.

“They had a domestic dispute that became violent,” Pace said. “He shot her and turned the gun on himself. Both were dead on the scene when we forced entry.”

 Drought causes Mississippi River levels to fall

A lack of rain brought on by long-term drought conditions dropped the water in the Mississippi River to near-record levels, forcing towboat companies to adjust cargo loads and river cruise line companies to resort to other locations to land for tours. Locally, the three cruise lines that visited the Vicksburg area landed at the county’s LeTourneau landing as water levels fell through October and into November.

At one point during October, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers website, which shows river levels issued by the National Weather Service, had the Mississippi’s level at -1.23 feet.

Conditions began improving in late November and into December with the National Weather Service River Forecast Center putting the Mississippi River at Vicksburg at 2.9 feet Friday and predicting a level of 4.0 feet Jan. 3.

 Vicksburg School District gets new superintendent

The Vicksburg Warren School District got a new superintendent with the hiring in May of Toriano “Tori” Holloway, Ph.D, to fill the vacancy caused by the retirement of former Superintendent Chad Shealy

Holloway’s hiring was approved May 26 by the Vicksburg Warren School District Board of Trustees.

Holloway has 25 years of experience in Mississippi public education, most recently serving as superintendent of the Simpson County School District. He also served as superintendent of the Quitman School District, as assistant superintendent in Starkville and as principal in both Harrison Central and St. Martin High Schools in Mississippi. He began his career as a teacher and then as assistant principal at Gulfport High School.

Holloway received his undergraduate degree from the Mississippi University for Women and his master’s degree and Doctorate from the University of Southern Mississippi.

Passenger rail service through Vicksburg under study

The Southern Rail Commission on Dec. 15 announced the award of a $500,000 grant for advancing passenger rail service across the I-20 corridor — a project officials say signifies a commitment to progress, efficiency, and sustainability.

Commission Chairman Knox Ross said the grant is the first step toward determining the process necessary to bring passenger rail service to the I-20 Corridor.

“This is a $500,000 planning grant to start the process,” Ross said, explaining that the grant guarantees funding for a critical phase in which assessments will be done for construction needs such as sidings on the railroad or new stations.

He called the grant “an official recognition that this is a corridor of interest from the Federal Railroad Administration.”

“Implementing passenger rail service along the I-20 corridor will not only provide a connection to Vicksburg and major cities like Atlanta and Dallas but will also focus on much-needed safety and quality of life improvements for underserved residents within the broader region,” Mayor George Flaggs Jr. said.

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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