After historic 2019 south Delta backwater flood, residents still picking up pieces

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Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/Report For America

Flood water surrounds an irrigation system in the Mississippi Delta.

As the flood waters sat stagnant for months inside hundreds of homes across the south Delta, John Elfer, the emergency management director in Warren County, knew that the worst of the historic 2019 backwater flood would come when the waters receded.

He was right.

“The disaster itself was bad enough,” Elfer told Mississippi Today on Monday. “The real work has been the cleanup and the recovery. I see this going on for years. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

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Across the south Delta, more than 700 homes and buildings have been surveyed for flood damage. In Warren County alone, 438 houses were damaged by the flood in some way — of those, 156 experienced what adjusters label “major damage,” and 29 were completely destroyed.

“The thing that really compounded things was how long the water stayed,” Elfer said. “A lot of these houses could’ve survived a flash flood. But when you have five feet of water in a house for four months, it’s tough to salvage the structure.”

Approximately 250,000 acres of farmland across the south Delta flooded this year, causing farmers to miss the 2019 harvest completely and setting them up to potentially miss the 2020 harvest. Some farmers, dealing with the devastating financial effects of missing an entire year’s harvest, may not be able to return next year.

Several state and county roads, sitting for weeks under stagnant or flowing water, were damaged to the point of needing to be completely rebuilt. Some of those roads haven’t been reopened to the public.

Three people — two adult men and a woman who was pregnant, all in Yazoo County — were killed in car accidents due to the flood. Wildlife scattered to avoid the waters, and many in the Delta believe wildlife populations, particularly deer, were permanently affected.

Many residents have spent thousands of dollars cleaning up or demolishing their homes or other property. For those who cannot afford to pay themselves, nonprofits and volunteer organizations have stepped up to help affected residents pick up the pieces.

Those same organizations have helped match displaced residents with housing until their homes can be properly dealt with. While federal disaster assistance has been tough to come by for residents in Mississippi, the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency has helped residents affected by the flooding, Elfer said.

Officials in Warren County, working with nonprofit groups like Rubicon and the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR), have assisted 119 people with tasks like tearing down houses, removing trees from property or fixing septic tanks — all free of charge.

Just in Warren County, officials estimate that 246,896 cubic feet of debris remains untouched. Elfer said that it will take 300 30-yard dumpsters to hold that much trash and it will cost the county about $180,000. 

“A lot of people have stepped up to the plate, and that’s been really encouraging,” Elfer said. “It’s just going to take a lot more work.”