Few who lived in central Mississippi at the time will ever forget the devastating Easter flood of 1979. It caused half a billion dollars in damage, and it devastated hundreds of families in the Jackson area. The water crested at a record 43.3 feet on the Jackson gauge on April 17.
Levees built by the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers in the late 1960s nearly disappeared under the water. Downtown was inundated, and water got up to people's gutters in northeast Jackson, including the Country Club and Eastover areas.
It swamped the few businesses that then existed on Lakeland Drive, including the Quarter shopping center and Jackson Preparatory School. Interstate 55 was shut down from Canton to Crystal Springs.
Since then, almost nothing has been done to prevent it from happening again. There have been many proposals: The "Shoccoe Dam" in the 1980s, lengthened levees in the 1990, and myriad "lake" projects in more recent years. None has ever moved forward, so the threat of another flood remains.
Keith Turner is the attorney for the Rankin-Hinds Pearl River Flood and Drainage Control District (RHPRFDCD), created by the state legislature some 50 years ago to oversee flood prevention here. He says a large-scale proposal to widen the river is our best chance yet at preventing another flood.
"This project has gone further than any other project," he says. "We are in the second of a three-stage review process with the environmental impact statement feasibility study. It has got more acceptance and support from both the federal and state levels than we've ever had before on any other project, so we feel very confident that we're going to be able to make it through the review and get approval from the federal government in the end and then move on towards financing and then construction."
The plan would remove a weir that sits just north of the water-treatment plant near Belhaven, and it would construct a new weir south of Interstate 20. The original weir was constructed decades ago to keep a minimum amount of water between it and the Ross Barnett Reservoir, so the city would always have enough water to draw from the river.
Once the new weir is constructed to the south, the river above it would be dramatically widened, taking in land on both sides. Dallas Quinn, who serves as a consultant to the RHPRFDCD, says about half of that land is already publicly controlled and contains no structures. He says the rest of the property would have to be acquired.
Quinn and Turner say the resulting wider river would enable a much larger volume of water to pass through the city rather than forcing it into neighborhoods, city streets, and highways. They say it would not result in a larger flood downstream, and they have made many trips to southern communities to answer questions in an effort to allay any fears.
They also say it would also make the river more accessible to the public for things like fishing and boating. The existing weir restricts access, and most people don't see the river unless they're driving over a bridge.
They say the project would not flood Jackson's Mayes Lake and its nature trails. On the contrary, they say it would enhance that area by potentially connecting it to the larger river. Recreational opportunities are something else the Corps Engineers takes into account during its review.
"We're going to give folks access to the river," said Turner. "When people have water, people get excited. I think it will make the area more attractive (so) that people will want to move here. It's an attraction that will bring folks back."
That would be the opposite of what happened in '79, when residents had to get out with whatever they could salvage.
"If the '79 flood were to happen today, we would see over a billion dollars in economic damages; to structures, to economic impact, to businesses and so forth," said Quinn. "We're looking at over a billion dollar impact. So it's very, very important that we do something to go ahead and get ahead of that where we're not worried about it when it does come."
If this plan passes muster with the Corps and the public, Quinn and Turner say it would cost about $300 million and take about three years to complete. Until then, the river runs through the same flood-control system that's failed to protect the city in the past.
The federal government would pay for about a third of the project, if it's approved. The rest would have to be raised locally.
You can weigh-in at a public hearing on the project in the coming months. We'll let you know when the time and place are set.
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