Historic flooding slams Mississippi as river continues to rise: 'This thing isn't over yet'

Alissa Zhu, Wilton Jackson, Luke Ramseth and Brian Broom, The Clarion-Ledger

JACKSON, Miss. – Dawn came Sunday with a steady drizzle as Jackson, Mississippi, braced for the the most severe flooding the area has seen in nearly four decades.

By 7:15 a.m. local time, the Pearl River, which flanks the east side of Jackson and runs near downtown, rose to its third-highest level in recorded history – bypassing the record 36.3 feet set by floods in 1902 and 1880. As of Sunday afternoon, the river was at 36.44 feet, according to the National Weather Service.

Murky brown water began creeping into yards and swallowing streets late last week and is expected to flood about 2,500 structures, including 1,000 homes, said Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves.

On Saturday, Reeves declared a state of emergency for the "historic" disaster, urging people to "get out while you can."

'We are not out of the woods yet'

With water rising slower than initially projected, the worst is yet to come. The river was expected to crest Monday morning at 37.5 to 38 feet, according to the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency.

"We are not out of the woods yet. We are seeing some positive news and positive results from last 24 hours, but there is more water coming into the river and into downtown Jackson," Reeves said.

More rain is on its way this week, which could increase the duration of the flood, officials said.

“The critical component is the amount of rainfall this week,” said Mike Word, Rankin County emergency management director. “We have rain coming in between Sunday and Wednesday. The water is coming. It’s just slower than they said. We don’t want the general public to lower their concern, because this thing isn’t over yet.”

Reeves estimates thousands of people are impacted by flooding.

Previously: Threat of historic flooding forces evacuations in Jackson, Mississippi

By Sunday afternoon, about 30 people were sheltering at the Jackson Police Training Academy, which has been opened to house and feed flood victims. Emergency responders conducted four water rescues Saturday, extracting people who were unable  or unwilling to leave their homes after evacuation orders. An unknown number of houses have been flooded. Authorities say the total number will not be available until after floodwaters recede.

The state's emergency management agency reported details of flooding damage across 11 counties. The preliminary report includes more than 200 homes damaged, four injuries from vehicles hydroplaning in Grenada County and a levee breach in Leake County.

Ross Barnett Reservoir officials began letting more water out at 6 p.m. Saturday. Reservoir operators pulled back on discharge slightly on 10 a.m. Sunday, to 75,000 cubic feet per second, agency director Greg Michel said.

"The problem is, you've still got the water that's already out there (below the reservoir) that's kind of flowed out of the banks, coming back in (to the river)," Michel said. "So the water levels are still going to rise. We hope that it's going to be less than 38 feet, but we're still planning for 38 feet."  

Jackson resident Iietta Sanders was anxiously monitoring water levels on her street Sunday afternoon. She said she’s most concerned about property damage.

“I have a lot of money tied up in this house. You can’t probably sell it … because who wants to move in (after this)?” Sanders said. “I’m hoping and praying the water don’t come this far." I hope it stops where it’s at.”

Mark Wakefield knows what it takes to rebuild after flooding. His in-laws’ home in Jackson has flooded four times before, he said. The worst was in 1979, when the house was 8 feet underwater.

“It’s no fun,” Wakefield said. “Once the water’s in the house, we’re looking at months of cleanup and reconstruction. It’s nothing life-threatening to us ... but it’s just extremely frustrating and disgusting to have to go through this.”

Nate Green, his two children and Clarion Ledger reporter Wilton Jackson canoe through Jackson streets during severe flooding on Sunday, Feb. 16, 2020.

Nate Green and his two kids, ages 6 and 8, couldn’t get through Jackson streets by car, so they went by canoe.

“One of the reasons people come and live down here is because they want to be close to the woods, close to the river, so they can ride four-wheelers, hike, do that kind of stuff, and this is part of what you pay,” Green said.

“It’s going to be financially crushing to a lot of people.”

Nate Green and his children Owen, 8, and Anna Kate, 6, canoed through the streets of Jackson amid historic flooding.

While paddling through the streets, he and his children came across floating debris – clumps of leaves and someone’s door mat.

“Who wants a stool?” Green asked. “Is that looting?”

In a news conference Sunday, Hinds County Emergency Management Director Ricky Moore strongly warned parents against letting their children play in the water.

"It's a lot of contamination. ... It's not safe, it’s a lot to swift water, a lot of unknowns. We don’t need a tragedy out of this," Moore said. "This is not a time for sightseeing and picture-taking."

Jackson Police Chief James Davis, answering media questions, said the agency has not received any reports of looting. Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba added that officers have been patrolling flooded areas.

"I want people to be encouraged that you have a team that is here, not only to help protect your life, but also your property," Lumumba said.

David Archie, who serves on the Hinds County Board of Supervisors, asked business owners to not "price-gouge" flood victims who are staying in hotels. 

"Those of you ... who want to take advantage of citizens already at a disadvantage, do not participate in anything that will cause you to go to jail. This is a serious matter," Archie said. "This is a humanitarian crisis."

Contact Alissa Zhu at azhu@gannett.com. Follow @AlissaZhu on Twitter.

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This article originally appeared on The Clarion-Ledger: Mississippi river flooding: Pearl River still rising, damage expected