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Partly Underwater, Vicksburg Awaits River's Crest

A wheat field is inundated with floodwater near Vicksburg, Miss. The Mississippi River at Vicksburg is expected to crest at a record level Thursday.
Scott Olson
Getty Images
A wheat field is inundated with floodwater near Vicksburg, Miss. The Mississippi River at Vicksburg is expected to crest at a record level Thursday.

Hundreds of homes and thousands of acres of farmland remain underwater in Vicksburg, Miss. The Army Corps of Engineers says the Mississippi River will finally crest Thursday — not a moment to soon for Doug Jeter, who stands on the side of Vicksburg's Business Route 61.

"You see where that boat is right now?" Jeter asks. "That's my field. It's 100 acres there that I'm supposed to be farming."

Jeter has 500 acres in all, and it's all under at least 10 feet of water. That's terrible for his wheat and soybean crops, but he says it has been great for boaters.

"That's what I told someone — I ought to get my son, and I got a ski boat, take him out there with a tube, and let him tube across my wheat field," Jeter jokes.

All kidding aside, Jeter is in financial trouble. He does have flood insurance, but this is the third year out of four that his fields have flooded.

He was hoping with the high price of wheat this year he would finally clear his debts.

So why doesn't he farm away from the river?

"Really there's no land to find; it's all took up," Jeter says. "That's what everybody is doing — they're looking for higher ground, if they could find it."

The Army Corp of Engineers says the river is over 57 feet — the highest recorded level since they started taking readings more than 100 years ago.

Carl Harris and his team of city workers put out another couple of thousand sandbags in front of the river's path.

"I'm actually tired of it," Harris says. "I've been out on it for the last two weeks, so yes, it's been a tremendous stress on us."

Harris is struggling to keep the river off Highway 61, the main road into the Port of Vicksburg. About a third of the jobs in the county depend on the port.

"Our rail access is shut off and our barge access is shut off," says Wayne Mansfield, the port director. He says the losses are mounting.

"There is no way to dock, our T-dock is underwater, our overhead bridge crane is underwater," Mansfield says.

The only way in is by truck. In May alone, he estimates, the port will lose nearly 20 percent of its annual revenues. June doesn't look any better.

Businesses in the historic downtown are feeling the pinch, too.

"Tour buses are canceling, B&B's are having cancellations — there is a misconception that you can't get here at all, and you can get here," says Sallie Bullard, who runs the Main Street Market Cafe. She is two blocks away from the river, up a really steep hill.

"Business is open," Bullard says. "Vicksburg, it will survive."

Tourism always slows down a bit as the days get hotter. But even in May and June, plenty of people travel the Blues Trail — the road trip through the state's historical blues sites.

There's usually even traffic on the lesser known Tamale Trail.

Blues master Robert Johnson recorded a song about the river delta's love of tamales back in 1936. With all the flooding, though, several stops on the piquant path are inaccessible.

In Vicksburg, Solly's Hot Tamales is open. Longtime owner Jewel Dean McCain says her small storefront is high and dry.

No one really knows for sure how the tamale was first introduced to the delta.

McCain says some think Mexican migrants brought them. Others say Mississippi soldiers returning from the U.S.-Mexican war brought the recipe back with them.

"As far as I know, nobody's figured that one out," McCain says.

Whatever the origin, McCain says, just come try them. She's open, and the tamales are hot.

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Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on