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High Water Doesn't Mark An End For Flood Victims

Vivian Taylor-Wells was staying at a Red Cross shelter in Vicksburg, Miss., after the rising Mississippi River forced her from her home a week ago and her money for a motel room ran out.
Dave Martin
Vivian Taylor-Wells was staying at a Red Cross shelter in Vicksburg, Miss., after the rising Mississippi River forced her from her home a week ago and her money for a motel room ran out.

Since turbid floodwaters drove Debbie Leach from her residence near Vicksburg, Miss., she has struggled to find a place to call home, even a temporary one, as she waits for the Mississippi River to recede and expose what may be left of her personal belongings.

Leach left her mobile home on Eagle Lake, an oxbow on the river that sits right on the Mississippi-Louisiana border, last month when the water level started to rise. Since then, she has bounced from staying with family to a Red Cross shelter.

"It's been a tremendous turmoil, wondering about my home and how much water is in it," she told NPR by phone.

A flash flood or a tornado would be like a heart attack; this is like a cancer. This is slowly progressing, and there is nothing you can do to stop it.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimates that 10,000 people from Illinois to the Louisiana bayou have been displaced by the floodwaters so far — many of them in smaller towns that are harder to reach and where relief supplies aren't as easy to come by. No one is certain how long it will take to recover from this year's flood, which is shaping up to be nearly as bad as one in 1973 that left 30,000 homeless.

For now, people are finding temporary shelter and help wherever they can, relying on the generosity of strangers. Until federal and state agencies can fully mobilize, it's the private and religious charities and churches that bear much of the load.

Leach, 57, initially moved in with her youngest daughter, but the arrangement lasted only a short while. Her efforts to get government aid didn't work out.

"I went to get some financial help to get an apartment or motel or something. We tried to get funds, but the funds are all gone," she said.

Now she's at a Red Cross shelter at a church in Vicksburg, where the Mississippi was expected to crest Thursday nearly a foot above the record set in 1927. About 20 people of the more than 2,000 displaced in the city have found refuge at the Hawkins United Methodist Church, an unassuming red and white brick structure that advertises "Open hearts, Open minds, Open doors."

"It's wonderful just to have a place to go. The shelter has been a godsend," Leach said. "But I am a very independent woman. This situation — it's still difficult to deal with."

Water On The Ground For Weeks To Come

The volume of water being pushed toward the Gulf of Mexico is the largest ever recorded on the Mississippi, said Bob Anderson, a spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers for the Mississippi Valley Division.

"It's never been this high; it's never had this much water," he said. "There's just a tremendous amount of strain on these levees."

Anderson said he has seen estimates that put the number of acres flooded as high as 6.8 million. And he said the water, or at least much of it, is going to be around until at least mid-June, long after the immediate flood fight news fades from the headlines.

President Obama signed declarations last week for parts of Missouri, Tennessee and Mississippi, starting the process for getting federal funds into flood-stricken areas. FEMA said on its website that it has opened a number of recovery centers to handle claims.

There has been no such declaration for Louisiana, and FEMA said it is still "too soon to tell what the total scope of the damages from this flooding will be."

'Not Going To Leave Anyone Behind'

Even as the floodwaters level off, the Red Cross said it anticipates that more people — not fewer — will seek shelter as temporary living arrangements with friends and family fall through.

Tamica Smith-Jeuitt, a public affairs officer with the American Red Cross of Mississippi, said that about 600 people were staying at five shelters around the state's flooded areas, helped by about 800 Red Cross volunteers.

Some of those shelters could reach capacity in the coming weeks because many residents were watching the water levels and waiting until the last minute to leave their homes, Smith-Jeuitt said.

"We don't really know what the impact is going to be yet, but we're certainly not going to leave anyone behind," she said.

Other aid groups such as Catholic Charities USA also weren't sure how bad the flood situation could get.

"Like [Hurricane] Katrina, we don't know what to expect until the water goes down," said Carol Spruell, a spokeswoman for Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Baton Rouge, La. "Only then will we really see the full impact."

Difficulty Of 'Donor Fatigue'

When Katrina slammed the Gulf Coast in 2005, it was such a devastating event, with every detail in the national spotlight, that donations poured in from ordinary citizens. Three years later, Hurricane Gustav tore across many of the same areas but didn't produce nearly the same charitable response. Spruell said people who gave after Katrina simply didn't feel as motivated.

This sort of "donor fatigue" along with the creeping nature of this year's flooding could make it difficult to raise money for victims, Spruell said.

She had just returned from surveying tornado damage in and around Birmingham, Ala., where about 130 people died as the deadliest swath of tornadoes to hit the U.S. in decades ripped across the South.

"It's the most incredible devastation that I've ever seen," Spruell said. "The homes that are being flooded are going to be just as damaged, though — but there won't be the news images of piles of rubble."

Nowhere Else To Go

North of Vicksburg, hundreds of homes and thousands of acres of farmland remain underwater and residents, farmers and business owners were anxiously waiting for the Mississippi to crest.

Warren County Sheriff Martin Pace said this type of prolonged natural disaster is like no other. Waiting for it to end has been agonizing.

"A flash flood or a tornado would be like a heart attack; this is like a cancer," he said. "This is slowly progressing, and there is nothing you can do to stop it."

Pat Wilson, whose home is not far from Leach's, arrived with her son at the same Red Cross shelter last week as floodwaters turned her neighborhood into a veritable lake.

"I was able to get some stuff out, but most of it I left behind," said the 54-year-old substitute teacher. "The neighbor behind me lost everything."

Wilson said her family is trying to make it work despite the hardships of shelter life. Her son graduates from high school on Friday, and they are doing what they can to get ready for the big day.

"The Red Cross is really trying to make this as much like home as possible," Wilson said, even as she noted that she had no idea how long she and her son would stay.

And no idea where they might go next.

NPR's Carrie Kahn contributed to this report from Vicksburg, Miss.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.