Written by Alison M Jones
Photographs by Peggy Pierrepont and Alison M. Jones
This blog stems from 2 months of photographs and commentary shared by Peggy Pierrepont. A former TV producer, Peggy has lived in Natchez MS for 24 years. Weather permitting, she paddles the Mississippi River and its backwaters daily, keenly observing its foibles. “I have to, to stay alive.” For 6 years, she’s been on the Adams County Search and Rescue Team. Her Buddhist sense of the river seems to stem from her knowing that “Water takes on the shape of the vessel it’s in” and that “You never step in the same river twice.” NWNL also extends appreciation for Ben Hillyer’s helpful flood reportage for “The Natchez Democrat.”
A riverside “NATCHEZ” sign for boaters – covered! (Photos: Peggy Pierrepont)
YESTERDAY, March 11: The Mighty Mississippi River logged its 3rd-highest recorded flood crest at Natchez MS and Vidalia LA (on the opposite bank).
A mere 20,000 years ago, outrageous flows of melting ice and water from receding Ice Age glaciers sculpted a new landscape, bisected by today’s Mississippi River. This river’s drainage basin is the 3rd largest in the world, spanning ten states from the Rockies to the Appalachians. This year being one of the wettest US winters on record, Mississippi River tributaries are now overflowing with above-average snowmelt and rains from the West, the Plains, the southern Appalachians and the Mississippi, Ohio and Tennessee Valleys.1
The Mississippi River is flooding. Below is a tale of Natchez MS waiting for its crest.
2019 NATCHEZ FLOOD – DISPATCHES on a TIMELINE
THE BEGINNING – JAN 4 Peggy Pierrepont, a NWNL Mississippi correspondent, sent NWNL her photograph of “NATCHEZ,” painted in red on a blue wall of the town’s boat ramp. From her front porch, surrounded by sweet olive blooms about to face unusual 15º temperatures, Peggy predicted a big flood with high water in Feb and March would rise soon and hide that “NATCHEZ” sign. She suggested I find the 2011 “Atlantic Monthly” article with dramatic photos of that year’s disastrous flood for a perspective on this upcoming flood.2
Peggy: It’s coming! Nature keeps me humble. I wish Nature kept more of us humble.
JAN 6 After our chats about Nature flooding 1,000’s of homes and 3,000,000+ acres of Mississippi, Tennessee and Arkansas farmland in 2011, Peggy offered to photograph Mississippi’s 2019 rising waters for NWNL. She had the perfect vantage point.
Looking downstream from the Natchez Bluffs (Photo: Alison M Jones)
Prior to the 8th century CE, and before satellite views, Natchez Indians, artists, European generals, US Presidents and many tourists have visited the Natchez Bluffs to enjoy some of the Mississippi River’s best views. For over 7,000 years, dusty winds blew loess soil across the Mississippi that created a 100- to 200-foot riverside cliff. Today these steep bluffs offer 20-mile panoramas upriver, downriver and across the river into Louisiana.
As landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted noted in 1852,3 Overlooked from such an eminence, the size of the Mississippi can be realized—a thing difficult under ordinary circumstances. I quickly grasped this, as I compared Peggy’s Natchez photographs to my Missouri photographs of the 1993 Mississippi Flood, in which Ste. Genevieve’s flat floodplains offered little perspective.
JAN 23 Peggy: After cresting at 52 feet, the river is receding. But – another rise is due. Yep, a lot of water is coming. It’s just not here yet. Scary because our high water isn’t usually until June. Our Search and Rescue team is already on HIGH alert.
FEB 5 As the US was being settled, about 20 buildings clustered on a river landing, then and now called “Under-the-Hill.” In 1779, that town took the name of Natchez Indians and moved onto the bluff, high above any floods. Today, over 15,000 live in this gracious, antebellum town.
Over the centuries, and especially after water climbed 10 feet in 2011 up the hill, Natchez MS and Vidalia LA have studied means of flood protection. Vidalia, right across the bridge, but only a few feet above the river, suffered terribly in the 1927 and 2011 floods. Thus, as the 2019 flood approaches, there is a careful watch on the levees and sandbags are set to protect riverfront businesses.
Feb 26: Bridge from Natchez MS to Vidalia LA (Photo: Peggy Pierrepont)
From Vidalia’s Mayor: The town’s highest priorities during flooding are to protect residences from seepage, streets and properties from developing sinkholes, and the businesses on the riverfront.
FEB 19 From The Natchez Democrat:4 Once again, the Mississippi River is rising, and local emergency officials are paying attention. Three of the top five floods in Natchez occurred in the last 11 years. Besides the 2011 Flood, the river crested in 2018 at 57.12’; then in 2008 at 57.03′; and in 2016 at 56.75.’ A 58–foot crest would tag 2019 for Major Flooding.
Peggy: We just had a somewhat scary Adams County Search and Rescue meeting about the rising river.
FEB 21 Peggy: The Under-the-Hill Saloon, Gail’s Store and Silver Street (site of the “NATCHEZ” sign) will be closed to traffic tomorrow. It’s been raining for the past week; and another week of rain is coming. Getting a good photo is going to be tough.
Peggy (later): We are under tornado watch. It’s rained for a solid week. Now this. The entire Ohio Valley is flooded and heading this way. THEN we have the snowmelt whooshing down. As they say here, “Oh Lord, spare us all.”
Feb 23: Silver Street flooded in Natchez (Photo: Peggy Pierrepont)
I am over the top with excitement! There’s a special, electric vibe in town now, such as before a big snowstorm up north. It’s so very kind of the clouds, bluffs and brick buildings to add allure to my photos.
The big tourist paddle boats cannot go beyond Greenville because the water is so high further north that there are no places to dock. I suppose busses will take the boaters back north to Memphis, from whence they came.
FEB 27 Donna Bush, New Orleans Reporter: The high water and swift current is causing major issues with ship traffic. A ship got in trouble yesterday and almost hit the river walk at Algiers Point in New Orleans. Thankfully, tug boats could avert the ship.
From The New Orleans Times-Picayune (after 1 sunny and 3 rainy days):5 For the third time in four years, the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) opened Bonnet Carre Spillway to reroute the river to Lake Pontchartrain (above New Orleans) and then to the Gulf of Mexico via Mississippi South. The USACE is opening about 30 of the structure’s 350 bays, now; adjusting them daily while keeping the spillway open for at least a month; and maybe eventually opening a total of 200 spillway bays.
Mar 7: The American Queen, stuck in Natchez (Photo: Peggy Pierrepont)
FEB 28 Peggy: The river is getting might close to the Magnolia Bluffs Casino. The parking lot is going under. The red “NATCHEZ” landing sign has disappeared, gone. The paddle boat that can’t reach Memphis is almost level with the Natchez shore. Another few feet…, and it will come over the road into the Under-the-Hill buildings.
As Peggy’s reports intensify, we discuss approaches to flood control – hard versus soft. What are the pro’s and con’s of the USACE concrete and earthen infrastructure versus Nature’s water-retentive forests, wetlands and floodplains, supported by today’s “green infrastructure” efforts? I recall a Herman Hesse quote from Siddhartha: Gentleness is stronger than severity; water is stronger than rock. Have we forgotten the gentle generosity of Nature?
53’ and 54’ flood-stage marks on Silver Street – covered! (Photos: Peggy Pierrepont)
I think of John McPhee’s 1987 article “In Control of Nature,”6 which convinced NWNL to pick the Mississippi as one of its six case-study watersheds. McPhee questions the sustainability of the USACE’s Old River Control, Morganza Spillway and its other infrastructure built where the Atchafalaya, Red and Mississippi Rivers converge. As a follow-up to McPhee, Peggy recommends Jim Barnett Jr.’s book, Beyond Control: The New Channel to the Gulf of Mexico, 2017.
The USACE’s Old River Low Control Structure (Photo: Alison M Jones)
Peggy: Therein lies the rub.
MAR 3 Peggy (from her Sweet Olive Porch): Getting very intense here. Wildlife is being pushed up over the roads onto highways and into towns. Their ‘territory’ is flooded.
Peggy, after I ask “Which species?”: EVERYTHING! Mammals. Deer, fox, bear, boar, coyotes – and the ever-elusive-but-do-exist cougars, both black and the usual tan color reported. Some of the “backwoods folks” refer to cougars as bobcats, so I’ll add them to the list. Tree-cavity nesting birds. Riparian birds, such as wood ducks, called “summer ducks” because they are here all year.
Amphibians and Reptiles. Alligators, active all year long, will cruise the levees for snacks. In April, May and June when the water is still very high, they become more aggressive because it’s their breeding and nesting season. If the water’s really high, they are limited to nesting on high banks and levees. Same goes for the snakes. They are after bite-sized vermin. (I consider an armadillo vermin. You should see my pockmarked lawn!)
Sorry, Peggy! I have no lawn, so I like armadillos. (Photo: Alison M Jones)
MAR 4 Peggy: March 4 !!!!! We are expecting snow!
MAR 6 This morning Peggy sent a video of a barge going downstream on the far side of today’s teeming Mississippi River. It’s labeled 49 mph. Why? Peggy drove along the bluff, parallel to and in synch with the barge. She later agreed that it was probably only going 30 mph. Hmmm, maybe no more barge-racing, Peggy!
From The Natchez Democrat:7 With the river 1 foot from cresting, local reactions abound:
–Magnolia Bluff Casino President, Kevin Preston: This river is no joke. The casino is using Hesco baskets and an AquaDam to protect its parking lot. They continue to learn better ways to protect their facility each year it floods.
Mar 6: Protecting Magnolia Bluffs Casino (Photos: Peggy Pierrepont)
–Magnolia Grill owner John Parks (who sells a great pecan beer!): As long as the crest stays at 58 feet, Under-the-Hill businesses should be fine.
MAR 7 From The Natchez Democrat:.8 The crest will last 3 to 4 days. Concerns are mounting. Levee board members, the local Homeland Security Director and USACE are patrolling the extremely-saturated levees daily for saturation and sand boils (‘water volcanoes’ that pop up and erode a levee). Sandbag coffer-dams are being built where needed. About 30 problematic sand boils have been found so far. Barry Maxwell, a levee board member, claims: As long as there is clear water boiling, it is fine. But if it is muddy, it means the water is eating up the bottom of the levee.
From The National Weather Service: Thunderstorms will produce strong winds, large hail and tornadoes across these areas Friday night and Saturday. Iowa’s concern is that this year’s deep snowpack will flood the Cedar and Iowa Rivers if the snowmelt is rapid. Whereas, usually Iowa has just a 9% chance of major flooding, this year, it’s a 66% chance – seven times higher than normal!
From St Louis Post-Dispatch:9 One headline reads: Fearing another ’93 disaster, Mississippi River mayors call for more flexibility on federal flood mitigation spending.” Fifteen mayors from Mississippi River cities are to meet Thursday in Washington DC to discuss what they can do with the $7.9 billion appropriated for flood-fighting projects. They worry that 2019 may bring flood levels like those near St. Louis in 1993 that caused $15 billion in damages and 50 deaths. They mostly agree that weather-related disasters are on the rise.
Mississippi River Flood of 1993, Ste Genevieve MO (Photo: Alison M Jones)
RE Minnesota (source of the Mississippi): One Minnesota mayor claims his city already has two feet of snow on the ground, with more expected Saturday.
RE The Yazoo Delta (north of Natchez): With a combination of Mississippi River backwater and heavy rainfall, Yazoo River is higher now than in the historic 2011 flood. In the Vicksburg District, 60 extra personnel are on duty; 11,000 sandbags have been issued; and 4 flood-control reservoirs are holding runoff and excess rainwater.
RE Baton Rouge (south of Natchez): The soil along the Lower Mississippi River is saturated, with very little capacity to absorb anything. Baton Rouge, still recovering from a massive 2016 flood costing $10 billion, now awaits its spring rains with concern.
MAR 8 From Quapaw Canoe Company’s John Ruskey (a NWNL Partner) :
RE The Yazoo Delta’s Sunflower River: The Sunflower is having an early flood this year. It crested last week at its second-highest flood level. This is the second 1,000-year flood in three years.
RE Baton Rouge and New Orleans: As the wave of high water slips downstream, it will cause concern for at least for two weeks if it hits 17 feet in the Crescent City (aka New Orleans). John’s good news is that the Delta National Forest is flooded, soils are re-fertilized and aquifers are recharged. But John notes, Man only wants fertilizer when he is ready to apply it; and he only wants water in his fields when he is ready for it.
MAR 9 The flood’s crest in Natchez has been moved to March 11. Peggy sent a video of the river bubbling up through a Natchez sewer drain near the Magnolia Casino. This would seem to indicate the city’s municipal waste is connected to the river.
Natchez sewer, still dry (Photo: Peggy Pierrepont)
MAR 10 Today’s Natchez paper has an upbeat focus on current flood preparations.
From The Natchez Democrat: 10 Reassuring measures include:
- 300+ new USACE relief wells that will absorb excess water
- Levee boards are monitoring seepage and sand boils USACE fixed in 2011
- Several levees were raised by 4 to 5 feet
- All levee traffic is banned until the river returns to 53 feet
- Vidalia spent over $2 million on riverfront protection after the 2011 flood
- Sandbags and Hesco baskets are available for temporary levees, if needed
From Quapaw Canoe Company: Today there’ll be a community paddle from Helena, Arkansas, through the Mississippi River’s flooded riparian forest. A unique opportunity!
MAR 11 CREST STAGE – After Two Months As this blog is posted, today’s flood in Natchez is predicted to stay at its almost-58′ crest for three more days. By Friday, it will recede by about one foot per day. Five of the top six highest floods in Natchez have now occurred in the last 11 years. The following warnings are posted: Just 6′ of moving water can knock you down; and 2′ of water can sweep your vehicle away.
Peggy: A friend just sent a photo that shows slipping cracks in a Lake Concordia levee, west of Vidalia. Growing fractures run above and below their property on a backwater, ancient Ferriday channel of the Mississippi River. REALLY, REALLY UPSETTING.
Mississippi River Flood of 1993, Ste. Genevieve levee (Photo: Alison M Jones)
While unsuccessfully seeking a source for the screenshot Peggy sent, NWNL learned that, as of Jan 3, 2019, plans were being made to ban traffic from the Lake Concordia levees. Reynold Minsk (Louisiana Levee District President) described a Concordia levee as: Shaky as hell; like a bowl full of jelly. It’s got water running down every crack.11
LOOKING AHEAD: Mississippi River Basin communities, having dodged flooding disasters this month, will now focus on analyzing soon-to-come impacts of the winter’s large snow packs as they head downstream to already-saturated land surfaces.
From The National Weather Service’s Spring Flood Outlook, March 7:12 There is significant flood risk on area’s major rivers. For the Mississippi, Missouri, and Illinois rivers, this spring flood outlook appears even more daunting than 2 weeks ago. This is the highest flood risk along this part of the [Middle Mississippi] since these probabilistic outlooks have been issued, or at least since 2003…. For most gaging locations along the Mississippi River, likely crest levels have risen 1 to 2 feet in the past 2 weeks.