‘Mother Nature and God Almighty are powerful adversaries’: Floodwaters overtake Eagle Lake community after long fight

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Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/Report For America

Tommy Parker takes a break from the flood relief efforts to enjoy a cigarette in Eagle Lake, Monday, May 13, 2019.

EAGLE LAKE — Tommy Parker doesn’t lose many fights.

He bounced at Bourbon Street bars during Mardi Gras, when throwing punches was sometimes the “all means necessary” to keep well-lubed patrons safe. He served as a Warren County deputy sheriff for four years and a reserve deputy before that, holding accident victims as they bled to death and witnessing a man kill himself to avoid arrest.

He spent 19 months in federal prison for bank fraud after he got busted check kiting. After he was released from prison, he managed professional wrestlers for several years, dragging them out of bars around the world and keeping them out of jail after shows.

Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/Report For America

A road sign is nearly submerged floodwater, in Eagle Lake, Monday, May 13, 2019.

There was never a moment in two days with Parker that he didn’t have a Seneca 125 cigarette in his mouth. Sporting a scraggly beard, an LSU ball cap, an orange safety vest and rubber slide flip-flops with no socks, he recalled with extreme and creative vulgarity the many life events that had prepared him for the most recent fight he’d waged.

“People don’t have a real tendency to want to fuck too much with me,” Parker said. “I guess that’s what makes me a good manager of this situation we find ourselves in.”

The situation he found himself in was bleak.

For the past several weeks, Parker and several other residents of Eagle Lake, a community about 15 miles northwest of Vicksburg, led a massive effort to stop the backwater flood of 2019 from destroying their community. About 400 people live in the unincorporated community year-round, but the old oxbow lake is a popular weekender vacation destination. There are more than 700 homes here, ranging from dilapidated mobile homes to million-dollar lake houses.

The fight was officially lost on Monday as all but 107 residents were forced to evacuate their homes. Fast-rising backwater flooding overtopped the sandbags along the roadways that Parker aimed to protect, and by Tuesday morning 50 homes had taken water.

Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/Report For America

Ricky Sykes helps with erecting Hesco baskets for the flood relief efforts in Eagle Lake, Monday, May 13, 2019.

“I’m not ashamed to admit defeat,” Parker wrote on Facebook as the waters breached the only remaining dry roadways in the community. “Mother Nature and God Almighty are powerful adversaries.”

This flood is a freak occurrence, the likes of which haven’t been seen here since 1973. Eagle Lake sits at the bottom of a funnel-like geography where two separate floods have now met.

To the north and east, the Yazoo backwater flood, which continues to rise, is caused by overflow from a series of small rivers and other waterways that flow through the Delta into the Mississippi River. Because of a heavy rain season and snowmelt from the Midwest traveling down the big river, the smaller rivers have no place to drain their water.

That backup of the smaller rivers has flooded hundreds of thousands of acres in the south Delta.

To the west and south of the community, the Mississippi River continues to rise as more water flows south. The moment that Parker and the residents lost their fight was when Eagle Lake, which rises with the river, reached the same height as the backwater flood to the east.

Together, the two floods swallowed the Eagle Lake community.

The catastrophe was inevitable, and Parker knew it all along. In earshot of residents and hard-working volunteers, he was encouraging and generally positive. He wrote a Bible verse on the firehouse door each morning.

Two weeks before the community went under, he talked of saving every home at Eagle Lake from water. But a week later, he talked only of ensuring that no lives were lost.

“If we go under, we go under,” Parker said. “But I’m gonna tell you to hold my beer while I try to save this place… It’s a slow-moving disaster, and it’s a game of fractions. That’s what makes it so difficult.”

That effort — though a failed one — was impressive by any standard. With extremely limited assistance from the government, Parker and the residents took matters into their own hands.

Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/Report For America

Floodwater surround the homes of locals and vacation homes in Eagle Lake, Monday, May 13, 2019.

They rounded up water pumps from their personal connections with government officials and farmer friends. They filled more than 150,000 sandbags, with the help of inmates from the Issaquena County Correctional Facility, a state prison a few miles north of the community.

Parker coordinated deliveries of sand from trucking companies as far away as Crystal Springs, and the Army Corps of Engineers sent massive sand bags to place along roadways.

He coordinated all this as the only paved routes leading to the community were closed. Just one route to the lake was open: the Mississippi River levee, most of which isn’t paved. 

Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/Report For America

Tommy Parker, and Eagle Lake Fire Department Chief Earl Wallace discuss the severity of the flooding issue in Eagle Lake, Monday, May 13, 2019.Monday, May 13, 2019.

All the while, he and Earl Wallace, volunteer fire chief, oversaw emergency operations. A few days before the community went under, an older man suffered a heat stroke while working in his yard. Wallace was on the other side of the lake, so Parker sprang into action, loading up a cooler of water and Gatorade into his pickup truck and speeding to the scene.

“I can tell you that without Tommy Parker, we would’ve been underwater weeks ago,” Wallace said. “He’s led this thing better than anyone could have. He’s really been a hero for us.”

The dozens of residents who had to evacuate over the weekend have been able to find temporary shelter, Parker said. Some are staying with family and friends, while others are staying in hotels. So far, the opening of a shelter has not been necessary.

Hydrologists and experts from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which controls the south Delta waterways, don’t expect the floodwaters to subside for at least two more weeks.

But while Parker and the other community leaders continue to assess what needs to be done while the waters continue to rise, they are also looking ahead.

“This is the easy part,” Parker said. “The hardest part comes when the water goes down. We’re about to have to deal with the biggest problems we’ve ever seen.”

Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/Report For America

Debris and dead fish can be seen in Eagle Lake as a result of the flooding in the area on Monday, May 13, 2019.

They’re staring down a weeks-long cleanup process. Garbage and pieces of wooden docks and boathouses are floating in yards. Snakes and alligators are taking up residence inside evacuated homes. The rising waters have scattered wildlife, forcing animals, rodents and reptiles in areas they can’t survive. Dead fish and other animal carcasses are everywhere, and the stench of algae has overtaken the community.

Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/Report For America

An alligator is seen near Eagle Lake, Monday, May 13, 2019.

Property owners will have to file insurance claims and disaster assistance applications. Roads, currently sitting under several feet of water, will need to be rebuilt. A 2019 harvest on the fertile farmland in the area is completely out of the question for farmers, and next year’s harvest is very much in jeopardy.

But for all the devastation, Parker and others remain optimistic about the future of their community. Writing to his neighbors in a long Facebook post, Parker urged the community to keep the faith.

“Watching the recent events here at Eagle Lake has brought a lot of powerful emotions back to me as I watched us fight, knowing that we must regroup and mentally prepare for the long road ahead,” Parker wrote. “We’re far from down, damn sure ain’t out, and have not yet begun to fight. We are Eagle Lake strong.”