‘From really bad to worse’: Eagle Lake residents race the clock to fight rising waters, save homes from catastrophic flood

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A group of Eagle Lake homeowners connect piping to a tractor pump to drain a flooded area that’s threatening to destroy homes.

EAGLE LAKE — A red Case IH tractor sits in two feet of standing water on Bonelli Circle near two homes that are just inches from the floodwater’s edge.

Billy Whitten, a 72-year-old farmer who owns a farm several miles away in Valley Park and a weekend home a mile or so downhill from the tractor, borrowed a neighbor’s water pump that attaches to the back of the tractor. The pump, connected to several dozen yards of pipe, pulls the water from the flooded area and deposits it into the lake two blocks away. 

Whitten is one of a couple dozen homeowners at Eagle Lake who, with limited assistance from government agencies, have taken matters into their own hands to limit the effects of the worst flood here since 1973.

Eagle Lake, an unincorporated community about 15 miles northwest of Vicksburg, is built on an oxbow off the Mississippi River. The rising floodwaters threaten about 400 full-time residents and close to 700 homes, ranging from single-wide trailers to million-dollar lake houses.

The residents bring different skills to the effort. Neighbors take turns paying for tanks of diesel, which fuels tractors, trucks and other vehicles needed for mitigation efforts. Some travel to Rolling Fork or Vicksburg, the nearest places to buy groceries and supplies, several times a week.

A handful of women prepare big lunches and dinners for the volunteers every day. For lunch on Monday, the menu included chicken and dumplings, green peas and cornbread for the hungry workers who had been hauling sandbags all morning.

The group’s efforts over the past several weeks have saved all but three homes from flooding. But as heavy rainfall is forecast for the weekend and the region’s rivers continue to rise, residents fear the worst may still be ahead of them.

Billy Whitten

“Everybody’s trying to pitch in. We’re all doing what little we can,” Whitten said. “But I’m afraid what we’re doing down here is not gonna help. You can’t just sit down and not do anything. You’ve got to at least be able to say that you tried. That’s all we can do.”

Warren County and state officials have provided limited support. The Warren County Board of Supervisors authorized the distribution of sand and sandbags, which eight inmates from the Issaquena Regional Correctional Facility fill. At least one on-duty Warren County sheriff’s deputy stays at the lake at all times.

Facing widespread destruction and property loss, the residents took matters into their own hands and developed a flood mitigation plan with the limited resources they had.

They obtained 11 pumps, loaned by an assortment of local, state and federal government agencies and farmer friends. They move the pumps between flooded areas, depending on where the water is rising fastest and how many people are affected.

Much of the time, the group isn’t adhering to common engineering practices or even legal standards. As floodwater rose a few weeks ago and began to erode the lakeshore near two expensive homes, the group swiped several large stones out of a yard to plug a culvert. They dropped sandbags and took sheet metal from another yard to keep the water from eroding the shore, which would’ve caused the homes to fall into the lake.

More than two miles of sandbags line Eagle Lake Shore Road.

Around the community, they’ve deployed more than 50,000 sandbags and plan to deploy tens of thousands more. More than two miles of sandbags line Eagle Lake Shore Road.

“If it weren’t for those inmates filling those sandbags, we’d already be underwater,” said Eagle Lake resident Tommy Parker, who has helped coordinate flood prevention efforts the past few weeks.

While Eagle Lake isn’t the only place in the south Delta that is flooding, its geographic position puts it at a greater risk for such an occurrence.

A heavy rain season combined with snowmelt in parts of the Midwest has led to record high river stages all along the Mississippi River this spring. To prevent the Mississippi River from backing up into the Delta, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers closed the gates known as the Steele Bayou control structure, just north of Vicksburg, on Feb. 15.

Usually, when heavy rainfall occurs in the Delta between Vicksburg and the state’s northern edge, that rainwater can funnel out of the Steele Bayou structure and into the Yazoo River. That funnel-like area is bordered by the mainline Mississippi River levee to the west and by the Yazoo backwater levee to the east.

Because the gates were forced closed, that water had nowhere to go, pooling up in low-lying Delta farmland from the Steele Bayou all the way to the southern stretches of Washington and Humphreys counties. 

It wasn’t until April 1 that the Mississippi River dropped to below the height of the backwater, allowing the Army Corps to open the Steele Bayou. Yet the drainage has been slow because the river didn’t drop significantly. And now as it’s rising again, the Army Corps of Engineers may have to close the gates again in the coming weeks. The Mississippi River Levee Board said it may be July before the area sees real relief.

Because Eagle Lake sits near the bottom of the funnel-like area, the possibility of such a flood is even greater. 

Despite all the residents’ efforts, the prospects of avoiding major structural damage are worsening by the hour as heavy rain keeps falling and as talk of again closing the Steele Bayou gates continue. At least four inches of rain fell in Eagle Lake and other extremely saturated areas of the south Delta on Thursday. Several inches of rain are projected to fall in the coming days, which could spell catastrophe for Eagle Lake.

“We’re sitting and watching the water rise all around us,” Parker said on Thursday.

The town has been under a mandatory evacuation order since March 8. State law doesn’t require residents leave under such an order, but it does mean that the local government cannot guarantee emergency services.

Earl Wallace, chief of the Eagle Lake volunteer fire department, is the only full-time emergency services professional at the lake. If residents have a medical emergency, they’d have to dispatch a helicopter from University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson, which can arrive in about 20 minutes. If the UMMC helicopters were on other calls or if weather conditions were poor, an ambulance from Vicksburg would be requested, which could take up to an hour.

Water erosion has caved parts of Shell Beach Road as the flooded Eagle Lake has swallowed dozens of docks, boat houses and flagpoles.

Normally, several highways lead to the lake, but the flooding has closed all but one route: the Mississippi River levee, parts of which isn’t paved. The floodwaters have forced wildlife out of their habitats, making what would normally be an easy drive to town a game of chicken with deer, other small mammals, snakes and alligators.

For the children who live at the lake year round, the closed roads means a one-and-a-half hour trek from Eagle Lake to the nearest school.

Meanwhile, the forecast has some residents fearing their flood mitigation efforts might just be delaying the inevitable.

“It all feels like a lost cause, but I’m going to fight to the bitter end,” Wallace said. “This is about to go from really bad to worse. Ain’t no question.”