With ‘Mother Nature in charge,’ dams unleash floodwaters


Jackson, Miss., homeowners use shovels to work their way through Pearl River floodwater in this Jackson, Miss., neighborhood Sunday, Feb. 16, 2020. (Photo: AP)

Days and days of heavy rain have created a dilemma for authorities managing dams along swollen rivers in Mississippi and Tennessee. The water has to be released eventually, worsening the flooding for people living downstream.

Dramatic video posted by a Tennessee fire department showed the impact: Two houses tumbled down a bluff over the Tennessee River, while many others have been swamped to their rooftops, as entire neighborhoods disappear in muddy water below the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Pickwick Reservoir.

“It absolutely kills you, knowing that” houses are getting destroyed downstream from the dam, TVA spokesman Jim Hopson told The Associated Press on Monday. “We have engineers on duty 24-7 trying to figure out what’s the most effective way to move this water downstream with the least impact. They feel it. I feel it.”

February’s rains have been “400 percent of normal, and we have more coming in this week. It’s kind of a never-ending battle,” Hopson added.

Mississippi’s Pearl River, meanwhile, crested on Monday at just under 37 feet, well short of its historic worst-case-scenario, and should begin draining soon, Gov. Tate Reeves said Monday. He said there were no reports of flood-related injuries, and thanked the people of Mississippi for heeding evacuation orders. Only 16 search and rescue missions were necessary, he said, even though as many as 1,000 homes were flooded.

But Reeves also cautioned that rainfall is expected, so no one should return to a flooded home until authorities say it’s safe to do so. Forecasters expect more rain between midday Tuesday and Wednesday evening across the region, extending the misery for people with waterfront or low-lying properties.

“We as a state are not in the clear yet,” Reeves said.

In one Jackson neighborhood, residents paddled canoes, kayaks and small fishing boats to check on their houses, giving lifts to other neighbors. Some were able to enter their homes, while others peeked into the windows to see what, if any damage, had been done inside. Floodwaters lapped at mailboxes, street signs and cars that had been left in driveways.

The momentary break in the rain enabled water levels at the Barnett Reservoir upriver of the capitol to stabilize, but officials repeated their warnings to pay attention to evacuation orders, check on road closures before traveling and stay off any flooded roads, because even placid waters can mask fast-moving currents.

The heavy rains and flooding has affected a wide area. Mississippi emergency management officials said Sunday that they had received preliminary damage reports from 11 counties connected with the severe weather that began on Feb. 10. Jackson Mayor Chokwe Lumumba said power had been shut off to 504 residences as a safety precaution.

The Pearl’s highest recorded crest was 43.2 feet on April 17, 1979. The second-highest level occurred May 5, 1983, when the river rose to 39.58 feet.

Officials released water from the nearby Barnett Reservoir to control its levels, after urging residents in northeastern Jackson who live in the flood zone downstream to leave immediately. By Sunday morning, Reeves said the reservoir’s inflow and outflow had equalized.

And in Savannah, Tennessee, which sits just below the Pickwick Dam, the Hardin County Fire Department said people were safely evacuated from a two-story home overlooking the Tennessee River before a bluff gave way and the home broke apart, the wreckage sliding hundreds of feet down to the water. Dozens of other homes in more low-lying areas were swamped, the department’s drone video showed.

The Pickwick is the next-to-last dam in the TVA’s system, and all the water from a river basin stretching into Virginia and Georgia has to flow through it before reaching the Ohio River and then the Mississippi. Water levels behind upstream tributary dams used to contain the flooding have risen as much as 40 feet this month, but even then, the Pickwick was releasing 2.36 million gallons per second Monday, down only slightly from 2.5 million gallons per second Sunday night, Hopson said.

“Mother Nature is really the one in charge — we simply try to manage what Mother Nature gives us, to minimize the impacts along the 652-mile Tennessee River and its thousands of miles of tributaries and streams,” Hopson said.

Outside Jackson, John and Jina Smith had packed up as much as they could and left their home as waters rose Thursday in the suburb of Flowood. They returned on Sunday in their neighbor Dale Frazier’s rowboat to check on the damage, then got in their own canoe and rowed away.

“We’ve been able to stay in here when the water gets up,” John Smith said. “But as you’ve watched it over the years, you know when to get out. It’s time to get out this time.”

A foot and a half of water was inside his house, Smith said. He’d already been in touch with a contractor and insurance agent to rebuild their home, where he and his wife enjoy sitting on their back porch and watching deer and other wildlife.

”It’s going to take a while for us to rebuild, but we are safe, and we’re all OK,” Jina Smith said.