Western Mississippi preps for expected flooding

TUNICA — A makeshift trailer park off U.S. Highway 61 is the refuge from the Mississippi River’s rage for many of the residents who once lived in the now-flooded Tunica Cutoff community, south of Memphis.

They’re huddled in more than a dozen recreational vehicles, some borrowed and others obtained with quick purchases as the river rose.

Jimmy Mitchell, 46, and his wife and two children have been living in a loaned camper for more than week on the grounds of the Paul Battle Arena and Exposition Center.

“There’s no sewage hook-up. You go in a barn to take a shower,” Mitchell said. “We have no time frame on how long we can stay.”

Though their community is under water, the neighbors are sticking together.

Mitchell chatted with Julie Blenis this week after she visited with her parents, who are also parked at the arena. Others sat outside their campers taking in a breeze while children rode bikes.

“Cutoff is a community where everybody lives from paycheck to paycheck. It’s also a community where everybody sticks together,” Mitchell said.

Larry Liddell, a spokesman for Tunica County’s emergency management agency, estimated 800 people — mostly retirees — lived in the low-lying area. Law officers have blocked access to the neighborhood.

Joey Richardson, a 50-year-old mechanic, said he helped five families evacuate as water rose in late April. Some took out their belongings in boats or waded through chest-deep water. Mitchell said he left behind his prized baseball card collection.

Liddell’s office has been fielding calls from residents who want to go get back to their homes. But officials are waiting for the waters to recede before surveying the damage.

“We don’t know when that day will be,” Liddell said.

From Tunica in the north to Natchez in the south, the river is chasing people from their homes, threatening crops in the agricultural areas of the impoverished Delta counties, shuttering casinos and bringing heartbreak.

Jeff Rent, a spokesman for the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency, said state officials were awaiting a presidential disaster declaration that would activate various federally funded assistance programs for residents like those who lived in the Cutoff. Many of them fear the damage to their homes will be irreparable.

Those programs would provide housing relocation costs, cover rental reimbursements and provide low-interest loans, he said.

For now, some flood victims are working with church and charitable groups.

Representatives from MEMA and the Federal Emergency Management Agency have flown over flooded areas in Mississippi, including Tunica, Rent said.

Farther south, people in some low-lying areas already have evacuated and riverboat casinos have closed. Farmers and merchants in the Delta counties say they hope their livelihoods will survive.

William Jefferson stood at a high spot at his Vicksburg neighborhood Tuesday wearing rubber boots and watching fish swim up and down his street.

Jefferson said he hasn’t had a hot meal since water started coming into his house on Saturday. Now it’s inundated with at least three feet, as are, he says, dozens of other homes in the neighborhood. Nearby, his brother, Milton, cast a fishing rod into the waters on the city streets. “At least we can catch something fresh to eat, because we ain’t got no icebox or electricity,” he said with a smile.

That led to a playful debate about whether anyone would eat anything caught in the flood water.

“If you eat a fish right now, you won’t live to see the water go down,” William Jefferson said.

Jefferson said he was unable to find storage for his belongings so he has lost everything he owns. He said he spends each day milling around the neighborhood, watching the water rise. “I keep my rubber boots on in case I’ve got to stay a step ahead of it.”

John Hines has owned a store in Yazoo County for about 25 years, winning over locals with sweet tea, double cheeseburgers and friendly conversation. The 73-year-old had recently decided to sell the place. Now comes the threat of flooding.

“We expect the water to get this high,” he said Monday, holding his hand about 5 feet above the floor.

His store is an extension of him. His trophy deer hang on the walls. An aerial photo of his deer camp hangs in the office, next to a picture of him and two grandkids after a good day’s hunting.

Gov. Haley Barbour, who has a house just up the road, stops by from time to time, Hines said.

“We finally decided to sell this store, but it ain’t going to be worth diddly squat if it gets flooded,” Hines said. “We’d have to get it back up and running again before we could sell it.”

He just doesn’t know if it’s worth the time and energy to rebuild Hines Grocery at this point in his life. But he’s not ready to abandon the place and a nearby house yet, either.

“I’m going to try and hang out. But the problem is it’s going to cut me off from the highway and roads,” he said. “I’ll have to get around on a boat.”

His reason for staying?

“Those people that come in boats to steal stuff don’t leave much tracks, do they?” he said.

To the west in Satartia, 77-year-old Ross Nesbit has been removing the furniture from his home and giving people rides in a boat on the flooded Yazoo River. He stopped under a bridge Monday evening.

“Usually, we’d be floating down the river. See how we’re just sitting here? The river is starting to back up,” he said.

Widespread flooding is expected along the Yazoo, a tributary of the much larger Mississippi. When the Mississippi is full, the Yazoo backs up and floods these fertile farmlands.

The flatlands of the Mississippi Delta stretch about 200 miles from Vicksburg to Memphis. People who can afford to are building protective levees around homes and businesses. Others are just taking what they can and getting out.

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Associated Press writer Shelia Byrd contributed to this report from Tunica, Miss.

Holbrook Mohr/The Associated Pres