The Pearl River’s downstream communities brace for the worst as Jackson’s floodwaters recede

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Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

Lana Ashley talks about the Pearl River flooding in Rockport, Miss., Wednesday, February 19, 2020.

ROCKPORT — Lana Ashley can’t help but think of 1979 as she stands in her kitchen looking out the window at the swelled banks of the Pearl River, which cut a temporary new path through her backyard.

Normally, the river is at least 30 yards away, down the steep bank from her house. But on Wednesday, the rising water was within about a foot of her house.

Ashley pointed to the several sandbags stacked against the back side of her house as she recalled the historic flood that wiped out the livelihoods of so many Mississippians.

“My parents’ house, which was just across the driveway there, took four feet of water in 1979,” Ashley said. “They lost everything they had, and they had to start over completely. This is apparently the second highest since then. It looks like we’re going to be lucky this time and we won’t take any water, but I know it’s a lot worse for other people. I know because I saw it (in 1979).”

Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

Flood water surrounds a home in Rockport, Miss., Wednesday, February 19, 2020.

Though the most threatening flood waters receded in Jackson, thousands of Mississippians down the long, winding Pearl River like Ashley are only beginning to see the worst impacts of the historic flood. Others farther downstream can only wait for the high waters to arrive.

Meteorologists say this year’s Pearl River flood is second-highest on record, behind the Easter flood of 1979. The 444-mile river that begins in Neshoba County and splits the Louisiana-Mississippi border before dumping into the Mississippi Sound significantly jumped its banks in 1979, creating damage of an estimated $500 million to $700 million in the state.

Officials estimate that tens of millions in damage is already done, particularly in the heavily populated city of Jackson, where dozens of homes and businesses were flooded and thousands of people were affected.

But as national attention to Jackson metro flooding has subsided, dozens of residents along the Copiah-Simpson County river border too have been flooded from their homes. Several roads in the area are completely closed because of high waters, including Highway 28, a major trucking route that runs between Interstate 55 in Hazlehurst and U.S. Highway 49 in Magee.

The river isn’t forecast to crest until Thursday night in Rockport, an unincorporated community in Copiah County about 50 miles south of the Ross Barnett Reservoir. Farther downstream in places like Monticello, in Lawrence County, and Columbia, in Marion County, the river won’t crest until the weekend.

Here in Copiah County, Red Cross and Mississippi Emergency Management Agency crews have been driving the area, assessing damaged homes and ensuring that displaced families have shelter.

Earl Allen, an 87-year-old man who has lived most of his life on the Pearl River near Rockport, said the real concern for many is not when the flood waters are high; it’s what happens when they recede quickly.

“We really are at the mercy of the folks who control the Ross Barnett (Reservoir dam),” Allen said. “They’ll flood us out every now and then, but then they’ll cut the water off all at once. The river goes down real fast, and the soggy banks around here have no time to dry out so they’ll fall back into the river when the water goes down. It’s hard to explain how much wider the river is today than it was 40 years ago, and how much land people down here have lost because of it.”

Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

Earl Allen discusses the Pearl River flooding in Rockport, Miss., Wednesday, February 19, 2020.

A few miles north of Rockport, in Georgetown, a sleepy former railroad town, the flood is drawing business from out-of-towners. For days, the Kountry Kitchen buffet has been the unofficial gathering place of emergency responders descending on the area. 

“I’ve never seen anything quite like this,” said Chiquita Bridges, the Georgetown librarian who has been showing Facebook photos of the flood to anyone who cares to see. “It’s all anyone can talk about. I just hate it for the people whose houses are flooded.” 

Owners of Georgetown’s largest employer, the Pearl River Lumber Company, located right on the banks of the river, closed the sawmill Thursday after officials blocked several nearby roads because of the rising water.

Even before the mill closed, workers took extraordinary steps to prepare for the flood, moving stacks of logs from the back of the property away from the river along with an expensive pump motor to save it from permanent water damage.

The sawmill itself is built on a slight hill, and on Wednesday the swelled river remained several feet from reaching the building. But because the water behind the mill has a fast-moving current — sawmill employees earlier this week saw a freezer floating swiftly through the property — the mill’s owners are concerned about significant erosion the flood could create.

“We’re hoping the bank of the river is still where it was once the water goes down because we use that ground area,” said Rob Pyron, whose family has owned the mill since 2003, as he pointed toward several feet of water covering what is normally a grassy, dry area. “But overall, we’re blessed. I hate that a lot of people around here aren’t as fortunate.”

On the other side of the river in Simpson County, the flood waters have crept into a few homes along River Road. And the flood there is literally raising the dead — coffins are coming out of the ground in a flooded cemetery at Pine Ridge Missionary Baptist Church in Harrisville.

Farther north of Georgetown, the flooding has displaced dozens of residents. As of Thursday afternoon, at least 16 homes took water around the Hopewell community in Copiah County, emergency officials said.

Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

Flooding due to the rise of the Pearl River damages a grave site at Pine Ridge Mission Baptist Church in Copiah County.

One home on Gatesville Road in Crystal Springs was completely surrounded by water on Wednesday. Residents were able to stay in the home, but needed a boat to get from their front door to the road. Even farther north in Terry, several homes were underwater near Rhodes Creek, which feeds into the Pearl River.

Back in Rockport, Lana Ashley’s brother, Mark Ashley, has kept a close eye on another brother’s house, which is on the river a few hundred yards behind Lana’s.

Mark Ashley placed yard sticks with bright tape around his family’s property so he can tell how much the water has risen. As he drives journalists around the waterlogged property in an old pickup, he points out the dry places where the water rose in 1979.

“It’s really incredible how much this river has changed over the years,” he said. “I’m just glad it’s not as high as 1979. But there’s not really much you can do about a flood. All you can do is sit back and watch and hope for the best. And we’ve been doing a lot of that.”

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