Homes, Businesses Submerged as Mississippians Plug Seeping Levee

April 21, 2008

That little Dutch boy from the flooding fable has nothing on Lee Jones and the crew at J.M. Jones Lumber Co. in Natchez, Miss.

Forget fingers. Jones, his sons and their employees have been using 1,000-pound sandbags to plug holes in a private levee that is slowly failing to keep the Mississippi River out of the third-generation family business.

Levee walls that looked impregnable for more than a decade have proven vulnerable as the river undermines them with sand boils that weaken sections and allow water to seep in.

“Seems like every morning we come down there’s a new problem, a new seepage we have to address,” Jones said.

The muddy river is out of its banks in much of Louisiana and Mississippi, spilling into low areas inside the levees and causing swollen streams to spread backwater over thousands of acres of rich Mississippi Delta farmland. In the most serious threat in more than three decades, a growing number of homes and businesses in areas along the river are being submerged by rising water.

Jones has no idea when his mill will be up and running. He shut down operations April 16 because water made it too difficult to move lumber and products around the work site. The river isn’t expected to crest until Monday (April 21), and even then it will take weeks for the water to recede.

“It’s a mess and if they raise the crest on that river Monday, I don’t know what we’re going do,” Jones said.

U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., visited Vicksburg for a briefing April 18 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. He said in a phone interview with The Associated Press that the Federal Emergency Management Agency will visit the area Monday and Gov. Haley Barbour is expected to make a disaster declaration Tuesday.

Barbour has already declared a state of emergency and spokesman Pete Smith said the governor is working with federal agencies on the next steps. He will likely tour flooded areas Monday.

So far, at least 55 houses and five mobile homes have been destroyed by rising water. Mississippi Emergency Management Agency records show another 300 homes and 428 trailers have suffered moderate to major damage. Two deaths are also associated with the flood.

Delta farmers will likely lose millions of dollars because of submerged crops and flooded fields that can’t be worked for planting. And dozens of businesses are affected, including LeTourneau Technologies, an oil-rig construction firm that’s laid off more than 1,100 employees until waters recede.

“There’s no question about it that it’s a serious event,” Wicker said. “There hasn’t been flooding like this in Mississippi since 1973. We’ve had a great deal of flooding over time, but to say that we’re back to the 1973 level of flooding is a profound statement.”

The Mississippi crested at Greenville on April 17 and was expected to reach its high-water mark at Vicksburg on April 19. The river is 7 to 8 feet above flood stage in most areas.

Forecasters predict a slow, steady decline of the Mississippi in the next several weeks.

Jones and his family invested their own money in the levees that stretch nearly a mile around the sawmill. And they’ve lost $150,000 so far during the flood hauling dirt, renting equipment and paying men to help.

Jones said aerial pictures of his mill show just how dire the situation is with water barely contained on three sides.

“It would scare you to death if you saw some air photos of the saw mill,” Jones said.

He’s using those giant sandbags for the first time and believes they might stop significant damage. Workers have been dropping them two or three at a time into problem areas and now have 60 to 70 placed strategically around the mill with more to fill over the weekend.

“They might just save our butts,” Jones said.

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