Winding like a brown, undulating snake from the headwaters at the convergence of the Nanih Waiya and Tallahaga Creeks in Winston County, flowing to the Mississippi Sound, the Pearl River waits until the inevitable day when once again we tremble at her power.
Thirty years ago this week, more than 6,000 people in 1,935 homes and 775 businesses in the metro Jackson area alone learned to fear the “big one” – the 200-year Pearl River “Easter Flood” that devastated the city and inflicted over $400 million in damages in today’s dollars.
State weather records show that the 1979 Easter Flood saw the Pearl River crest at 43.28 feet on April 17, 1979 – some 15 feet above flood stage. Survivors fear that another “big one” is coming.
Upstream and downstream critics of flood control projects to alleviate Pearl River basin flooding claim the only group that doesn’t remember the ravages of the 1979 flood are commercial and residential real estate developers who continue to build in the Pearl River basin flood plain.
I asked state climatologist Dr. Charles Wax, chairman of the Geosciences Department at Mississippi State University, six years ago to explain how the Easter Flood transpired. He called it “pretty much of the perfect storm” to produce a catastrophic flood.
“You have to remember that in 1979 over 36 hours, 22 inches of rain fell at the upstream headwaters of the Pearl,” said Wax. “The storm literally stalled exactly over the long, narrow basin and just sat there, pumping out water aligned perfectly with the river basin. If you had seen that storm shift 50 miles in either direction, there would have been no flood.”
Wax said that while the likelihood of the 1979 flood being superceded is slim, it could happen.
“Hydrologic records show that it could possibly happen, given our environmental conditions,” Wax said. “Those records are no prognostications, but records of weather events that have taken place in the past. So it’s really not a question of ‘if’ a larger flood is coming, but ‘when’ that flood will arrive.”
The 1979 flood in Jackson was considered a 200-year flood, or one that has a one in 200 chance of occurring any year. Jackson was hit with a 37.24 feet river crest in Dec., 1961 and a 39.58 crest in May, 1983.
What’s been done since 1979 to alleviate Pearl River flooding? Next to nothing.
n In the 1970s, a plan was submitted to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for construction of an upstream dam. After much political strife and environmental debate, the dam was never built.
n In the 1980s, the proposed Shoccoe Dry Dam was proposed. The proposed dam was designed to hold water only during a flood, but political opposition from upstream counties and cities – who pointed to the fact that the design would ban upstream development while allowing metropolitan Jackson to continue development in the existing flood plain – doomed that project as well.
n Over the last decade, the latest flood control plan to be debated and redebated has been varying versions of the so-called “two lakes” plan – the brainchild of developer and oil man John McGowan. Like others before it, McGowan’s plan has been debated likely to death and appears to be in political limbo.
Still, the Pearl waits – until the next “perfect storm” approaches.
Contact syndicated columnist Sid Salter at (601) 961-7084 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.