A product of the Mississippi hill-country, standing water was something I saw only in a pond on my parent’s farm or crossing the creek on “the place.” Beyond the occasional thrill of Grenada Lake spillway opening, flooding was a distant story on the Sunday evening news. But for the last 11 weeks, the 2019 South Delta backwater flooding has consumed both my professional and personal life.
I landed in the Delta in the summer of 2014 and quickly put down roots. Just days into starting my new job as an MSU Extension Associate for Delta Council, I was challenged with locating inundation and pumping maps, powerpoint slides, photographs and documents related to the Yazoo Backwater Project – which was as foreign to me as flood control. Over the last several years I’ve seen hundreds of devastating flood photos and more powerpoints from the Mississippi Levee Board and Corps of Engineers than I can recall, but all from behind a computer screen.
In early March, I was offered a unique opportunity to show up to work the following Monday with hip-waders and a full camera battery, to be on the ground non-stop documenting what I never anticipated to be a record-breaking flood. My first day on assignment, I went to the local hangout in Valley Park (the grain elevator) in search of those affected by the backwater. As soon as I stepped through the door, I was handed a cup of coffee by one of the many ag-based workers discussing sandbagging, ring levees and pumps, as they spent a rainy, cold and flooded morning not in the field. Within two-cups-of-coffee-time, the locals had an impressive and comprehensive list of people and places for me to visit. That was the first day I scratched the surface of an under-told story of homes and roads marinating in filthy stagnant water, rotting animal carcasses by the hundreds, and so many stories of children and adults left displaced, and even homeless.
Within the first week of documenting, Delta Council/Delta Wildlife established the “Forgotten Backwater Flood” Facebook and Instagram page to show the unpublicized reality of the backwater area. The first four days we averaged 1,000 followers a day. Immediately, residents began reaching out on social media sending snapshots, telling their story and inviting me to come document their experiences.
I spent my days exploring flooded roads I could barely access via truck while dodging a sickening amount of roadkill, bouncing around in a high-water truck through heavier flooded areas, and even had the opportunity to fly over the area and document aerially, but none of that could prepare me for what I witnessed next.
A legal official took me on a boat tour of areas that are non-accessible by road. We boated down gravel roads for miles upon miles and saw rural neighborhoods inundated with three to six feet of water. Backwater had been standing in the homes for so long the walls were bowed out and porches had floated away. Water covered the tops of vehicles and campers left behind, and the wake had beaten through the siding of many homes, exposing insulation and the frame. A giant floating tank was leaking diesel, contaminating the water. Sickly wildlife were stranded on spoil banks, deceased bloated opossums, deer and racoons were floating through yards, and snakes were hanging in trees. We even spotted an alligator swimming in the front yard of an evacuated home. Just when I thought I had witnessed the worst of it, I zoomed in my camera lens to capture a detailed shot of a home that water had not yet reached. While looking through my lens, a little head lifted slowly over the grass, and I saw a tail flop about three times. The emaciated dog looked like skin draped over a skeleton, and so weak she couldn’t get up when she saw us. I believe that day was the tipping point for me, and this project became more than a job.
As I was spending 10 or more hours daily traveling the backwater area and blindly introducing myself to anyone who stood still longer than two seconds or made eye contact with me, I quickly became known as the “forgotten backwater flood woman.” Trying to earn the trust of people who are angry, vulnerable, physically and mentally spent, on their way to losing nearly everything is not an easy feat. Eventually the people of these communities began to see positive outcomes of telling their stories through our platform and speaking loudly enough for the rest of Mississippi and beyond to hear. By publishing their stories daily and letting social media organically increase momentum, the backwater pump project has gained a substantial amount of attention from other citizens, lawmakers, the media and even some anti-pump organizations and individuals. We have reached over 25 countries, several hundred thousand Facebook users, and over 30 news, weather and documentary outlets.
Before starting this journey, I never thought about the Eagle Lake child who has to boat to the road then ride a school bus three hours a day; the person who has to choose each day between going to work and risk losing their home, or stay home to protect their property and risk losing their job; the elderly lady who can’t drive her car through the flooded roads and cannot have her medical supplies delivered; the business owner who is a single mother and had to close her store because trucks would not deliver goods to her store; the multiple people who have been sent to the hospital because the contaminated backwater caused them to have severe reactions; the emergency response teams that have been relocated to these stranded areas; the family that has to boat their pets to dry ground multiple times a day; the family that finally purchased their dream home six months ago, and will have to demolish it; the man whose grandfather sacrificed his family’s land 80 years ago for the levee and channel system that was never completed and has been fighting backwater his entire life. This backwater flooding event is more than a couple of farmers who can’t plant this year. It’s more than a few roads underwater causing some inconvenience.
Now that I am three months in, I cannot recall a week I have not shed a tear, and a few times wept, due to the misery and suffering our fellow Mississippians and Deltans are suffering. For decades, many of these families have fought (and some lost) a long hard battle against the backwater on the broken promise of the pumping plant. No photo, video or interview can fully illustrate the absolute ruin of the area, and the fear, anger and spark of determination in the eyes of the thousands of hardworking, worn down, steadfast Mississippians.
To end on a high note, Delta Wildlife staff rescued the dog, Sophie, and my parents are fostering her until she has recovered well enough to be adopted.
Mary Brooks is an MSU Extension employee located at Delta Council in Stoneville, Mississippi.