ROLLING FORK – Patience dulled in the southern Delta on Wednesday night.
Several hundred business owners, farmers, families and other Mississippians gathered in a high school auditorium, summoned to offer their thoughts on flood control solutions. For most attendees that night, that solution is the Yazoo push-ups.
The frustration in the room stemmed from decades of what supporters of the pumps call a broken promise and what opponents call an illusion.
Sen. Roger Wicker, who hosted the town hall with Rep. Bennie Thompson, has pressed federal officials in recent months to revisit the pumps proposal after the Environmental Protection Agency shut down the idea for the second time last November.
Wicker told the public that the agency, after reinstating a 2008 veto, promised an alternative pump plan within 12 to 16 months, or next November at the earliest.
The federal government first introduced the idea of Yazoo pumps in 1941 as part of a response to the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927.
After decades of planning and design, the EPA first vetoed the idea in 2008, determining that the pumps could drain 67,000 acres of wetlands in the Southern Delta. The agency briefly brought the project back to life in 2020, when, under President Donald Trump, the EPA ruled that an amended proposal that moved the location of the pumps exempted it from the 2008 veto.
Wicker and Thompson — who are both supportive of the project, though Thompson more timidly in recent years — sat on the auditorium stage next to White House Environmental Quality Council Chair Brenda Mallory, along with representatives from four different federal agencies.
“We want a lasting solution, we recognize that what is happening in this community is unacceptable and unsustainable,” said Mallory, who added that the pumps are “not necessarily what we will need today.”
Opponents of the pumps, largely scientists and conservation advocates, pointed to the high price, which Thompson estimated at around half a billion dollars. They also claim that only 17% of the half-million acres flooded in 2019 would have been spared by the pumps, citing data from the US Army Corps of Engineers.
As record rainfall landed across Mississippi on Wednesday, many recalled the devastating backwater flood of 2019, which left properties inundated for more than six months. Some of the residents who testified on Wednesday said their homes and businesses still needed repairs.
“You have no idea what it’s like to go through a seven-month flood,” said Eagle Lake resident Ann Dahl.
About 30 members of the crowd approached the microphone for two hours, displaying a wide range of hopes, emotions and truths about the pumps.
Victoria Garland, who lives in Issaquena County, held back tears as she spoke. In 2019, she had to park at her neighbor’s house and cross a creek by boat to get to her house.
“The things we saw on our trips to and from (home) were indescribable,” Garland said.
“If you’ve never seen deer that just don’t look good, the smell of rotting flesh will make your stomach turn more than eight in the morning when you’re just trying to get away. and go make some money.”
At one point, a commentator asked the audience to raise their hands if they supported the construction of the pumps. A large majority of hands went up.
Eventually, the crowd directed their feelings towards the bureaucrats on stage.
“Drop your ass”, one of the commentators begged.
“Have you ever had to fill a sandbag?” shouted another spectator from his seat.
While most participants supported the pumps, others were in favor of more options being presented to flood victims, such as easements, buyouts and house elevations.
“’Finish the push-ups’ is a great slogan,” said Ty Pinkins, organizer and lawyer, after the event. “But a single solution will not satisfy all citizens. Raising a house might be a viable option for someone.
The most recurring theme among Wednesday’s speakers was impatience. With generations of families having passed since 1941, locals are eager to see something change in an area where around a third of the population lives in poverty.
“All the political minutia, the arguments between farmers and non-farmers, and all that other bullshit, I don’t care about,” said Roy Rucker, of nearby Panther Burn. “But what matters to me are the people who live here and why the industry won’t come here.”