Flood water still stands on a street in Mound Bayou a week after the heavy rain stopped. Credit: Kelsey Betz

MOUND BAYOU — For 45 years, Eugene Brown has been the person Mound Bayou residents turn to when they need help.

In 1976, he became an auxiliary police officer and volunteer firefighter. He later stepped into that work full time and was eventually named fire chief, cementing a life of pulling people out of burning homes, wrecked cars and flood waters. 

But on June 8, as water began seeping into every room of his house, the unbelievable reality set in that this time Brown would be the one who needed rescuing. 

“I’ve been 31 years in this house and I’ve never had this. And I worked the fire department and first responders for years. I was the chief taking care of everybody else. This is my first,” he says, trailing off as he surveys his evacuated home. 

Eugene Brown indicates the level that the water reached in his Mound Bayou home during the flash flooding in June. Credit: Kelsey Betz

“Realizing that it happened to me has been the hardest part. I’ve always had love and compassion for people,” Brown continued. “That’s why when they call I go. But when I woke up and looked around I realized it was me this time. They couldn’t call me because I was in the same shape or worse as some of them.”

The heavy rains started on June 7, pounding Bolivar, Sunflower and Grenada counties for 5 days. 

According to precipitation reports from the National Weather Service, the worst hit parts of these counties received more than 14 inches of rain. The unusually abundant rainfall makes recovering in an area with high poverty rates a steeper challenge.

“There’s a .001% chance of occurring. That’s a pretty extreme event to get that type of rainfall,” said Marty Pope, senior service hydrologist at the National Weather Service.

Brown’s home flooded almost up to his knees in less than an hour, he said. 

“The water just started coming in. In about 30 minutes this (the living room) was completely flooded and in the rest of the house, the water was seeping in through the walls,” he recalled. 

That gave him about half an hour to evacuate his wife and wheelchair-bound son to higher ground. First they went to a neighbor’s home across the street. When the water continued to rise, it became clear they would have to leave and book a hotel in nearby Cleveland. 

Volunteers gather outside of Eugene Brown’s home in Mound Bayou after assessing the damage and helping clear out the home. Credit: Kelsey Betz

Nearly three weeks later, they’re still staying there.

All around Mound Bayou, others were experiencing the same devastation as Brown. 

“The ambulance came maybe three times that day (June 8), but they were not able to make it to some peoples’ homes because of the water. They had to come back later on. And with some of them, they (first responders) had to get a boat to get the person and bring them back to the ambulance,” said Leighton Aldridge, mayor elect of Mound Bayou. 

He continued: “We had quite a few families who lost when I say everything — they lost everything.”

Mound Bayou wasn’t the only Delta town affected by flooding. Rosedale, 26 miles west of Mound Bayou, and Shelby six miles north were flooded by the heavy downpour as well. Sunflower, Grenada and other surrounding counties were also hit hard.

Volunteer first responders worked to rescue people from their homes day and night throughout the rainfall, Bolivar County Emergency Management Agency Director Michael Lamb said. 

“They were jumping in water, boats, and helping people get out of homes, getting pets out of homes. A lot of our volunteers — their homes were flooding. They left their homes to go get other people. So that speaks volumes for them,” Lamb said. 

The storms finally relented after five days. A week later, standing water still remained on Brown’s street. Tiny fish, washed up from surrounding creeks, swam in the flood water that lingered outside of his now empty home. 

Volunteers, both locally and from faith based organizations around the country, have deployed to the areas ravaged by flooding to help.

Organizers say their greatest need right now is manpower. Anyone wanting to help can call Samaritan’s Purse at 662-402-3454 or C2K Ministries at 262-337-1412.

They moved all of the furniture out of homes to keep it from being destroyed by moisture and mold. When they entered Brown’s home to assess the damage, they wore N-95 masks not out of caution for COVID-19, but to prevent themselves from inhaling black mold spores. 

And while the help has been deeply appreciated, it has its limits. Government aid would be needed to help rebuild on a wide scale, but Lamb said it looks unlikely that the county’s damages will meet the thresholds required for federal assistance. 

Initial assessments by state officials suggest Bolivar County wouldn’t qualify for Individual Assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which sends direct relief to disaster victims. FEMA considers several factors, such as the number of homes with “major” damage, which means in most cases that water has reached 18 inches or an electrical outlet in a home. 

Lamb pointed out that it doesn’t make sense to broadly apply an 18 inch threshold to the entire state given its topographical diversity. Bolivar County essentially sits at the bottom of a bowl, he said; once it starts raining, the water has nowhere to go. 

He also said that a home shouldn’t have to have 18 inches worth of water in it to be considered major damage. 

“Two inches of water inside your home is a lot of water. That will make the floor come up. People here don’t have $10,000 to replace the floors. Hardly anyone (who the county helped) had insurance. The ones who did didn’t have flood insurance,” Lamb said. 

Mississippi Emergency Management Agency officials told Mississippi Today that although FEMA doesn’t have a hard minimum, a county usually needs at least 50 homes with major damage to receive Individual Assistance. The last assessment in Bolivar County only found 19. 

But that could change as FEMA gives the state 30 days — in this case until July 13 — to submit damage reports, and state officials plan to reassess damages as the water recedes.  

“Unfortunately in most cases in Mississippi we just don't meet the federal threshold for individual assistance and we have to get creative,” said Todd DeMuth, MEMA’s State Coordinating Officer. 

DeMuth alluded to a new program the state Legislature approved in 2018 called the Disaster Assistance Repair Program, which sends up to $250,000 to a county should it not qualify for federal aid. So far, the program has funded almost $3 million in repairs across 22 counties, rebuilding over 800 homes.  

MEMA officials said that Bolivar plans to request DARP funds next week, adding that it usually takes about a week for the county to receive the money and that it can immediately utilize the funds.

“We have about $2 million worth of damage in the county,” Lamb said. “But $250,000 in aid would be better than what we have right now.”

He’s concerned about what the after effects will be for the communities who were hit the hardest but aren’t likely to get aid from FEMA. 

“There’s going to end up being a lot of vacant homes and a lot of sick people because they’ve already got mold growing in their homes,” Lamb said. 

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Kelsey Davis Betz is from Mobile, Ala., and currently lives in Cleveland, where she worked as a Mississippi Delta-based reporter covering education and intersecting issues. Kelsey has a dual degree in journalism and Spanish from Auburn University and worked as an editorial intern at Texas Monthly and a courts reporter at the Montgomery Advertiser. She is a 2018 Educating Children in Mississippi Fellow at the Hechinger Report and is a co-founder of the Mississippi Delta Public Newsroom.

Alex Rozier, from New York City, is Mississippi Today’s data and environment reporter. His work has appeared in the Boston Globe, Open Secrets, and on NBC.com. In 2019, Alex was a grantee through the Pulitzer Center’s Connected Coastlines program, which supported his coverage around the impact of climate change on Mississippi fisheries.