The chest-deep water currently surrounding Stormy Deere’s house is expected to remain there until at least July. The home she lives in with her husband is safely elevated on a mound of dirt and brick, but she has had to take a boat to reach it since early March.
Nothing has changed for months.
Deere, 44, loads her dogs on the boat twice a day when she must take them for walks, though she leaves the smallest one at home for fear of the alligators that live in these waters. This way of life, she said, is untenable.
“Emotionally, I have good days and I have bad days,” she said. “Some days I’m ready to go, some days I look outside and I want to despair. I want to just lie down and die. But that’s not an option.”
Record rainfall has led to the persistent flooding this year. That’s caused the Mississippi River at nearby Vicksburg to remain above flood stage, which is the water level that can cause massive flooding, for more than 114 consecutive days. That’s the longest span since 1927, according to the Mississippi River Levee Board. The water has also reached the highest level since 1973.
And while 2019 has been extreme, flooding in the Yazoo Backwater Area, as this part of the state is known, happens nearly every single year. Since 2000, there have only been five years when it hasn’t flooded here.
Families that call this southern part of the Mississippi Delta home have put up with standing water for months. Via community meetings and social media, they have attempted to draw attention to their plight — all to little avail.
The river has now laid waste to 550,000 acres of the Mississippi Delta, including 225,000 acres of farmland, and affected more than 500 homes. But it is expected to rise again this week, entering a major flood stage, according to the National Weather Service, and those waters won’t recede until at least July.
“It is unbelievable just the vastness of this, and the hundreds of homes that are flooded, and the highways that are underwater, and the hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland that are underwater,” Peter Nimrod, chief engineer of the levee board, said.
Dubbed “the forgotten flood” by locals, it comes amid natural disasters that have caused billions of dollars of damage across the Midwest in the past several months and in turn claimed the national spotlight.
The difference is that in this part of the country, many residents believe there is a solution to their persistent, yearly flooding woes — if only the government would cut through the red tape to enact it. Locals like Deere believe that an unfinished Army Corps of Engineers project known as the Yazoo Pumps, a potential drain for the levee system that protects the Delta, would hold back the floodwaters that regularly threaten almost 20,000 people here.
Environmental advocates and longtime civil servants who have worked on the project, however, argue that the pumps come at a high cost, potentially draining tens of thousands of vital wetland acres that supports one of the most unique wildlife habitats in the country.
The project has been debated for almost 80 years, with frustration and anger building with the passing time.
Residents of the region, local farmers and Mississippi politicians are calling for the revival of the pumps — a project vetoed by George W. Bush’s administration, called “one of the worst projects ever conceived by Congress” by Sen. John McCain in 2004, and endlessly decried by environmental advocates.
Some believe the pump project could now find new life, despite unparalleled hurdles, thanks to renewed interest from the Trump administration. A few enterprising locals have even gone so far as to pitch in for two billboards that read: “President Trump, finish the pumps!”
As if in answer, the Trump administration announced that the Environmental Protection Agency would review the project after prodding from Mississippi’s congressional delegation.
Now Deere, like many here who have suffered from the widespread flooding, wants the government to act quickly and build the pumps, despite the fears of massive environmental degradation and the four years and hundreds of millions of dollars it would require.
“No one’s asking for the Delta to not flood. No one’s trying to drain wetlands. No one’s trying to kill the gnat or the pondberry bush. No one’s trying to take away the waterfowl hunting because we duck hunt as well,” Deere said. “We just want what they promised.”
A silver bullet or a lie?
The pumps are a civil works project that have long loomed over this region since they were first proposed and authorized in 1941. Though they were never built, plans for the pumps were reviewed by the Corps in every ensuing decade except the 1970s — often at the direction of Mississippi politicians.
That still holds true.
Both Mississippi senators — Republicans Cindy Hyde-Smith and Roger Wicker — as well as Rep. Bennie Thompson, a Democrat who represents the Delta region, and Republican Gov. Phil Bryant have recently voiced their support for the pumps. It’s also a topic in a tight Mississippi governor’s race.
“It’s like the third rail of Mississippi politics: You have to be for the pumps,” said Leonard Shabman, a water and environmental researcher who has worked with the Corps and the EPA on the pumps since the 1980s.
Now Mississippi politics has pushed the current administration to act, many noting that there are 22 federally funded pumps within 200 miles of the Yazoo Backwater area. Every levee system in the lower Mississippi Valley has a pump plant except here.
The levees at these different sites create a bowl shape, and during high-flood events, those bowls begin to fill with water. A pump, the Mississippi Levee Board said, is the only effective way to help drain that water away and is necessary in this region.
An EPA spokeswoman said in an email that the agency has noted the “economic and disruptive impacts” of the Mississippi flooding and planned to find solutions.
“The Agency strongly supports the goals of improved flood protection and wetland protection for the residents of the Mississippi Delta,” she wrote. “EPA will work with the Corps and the local Levee Board to review updated data and other information as it relates to our regulatory programs and oversight.”
The discussion of pumps appears to arise whenever the area faces intense flooding, but environmental protection advocates and former civil servants who worked on the issue for decades didn’t think it would come up again after the EPA, under the Bush administration, vetoed the pumps in 2008.