By Mary Margaret Halford
VICKSBURG— Just days after returning to school from the Christmas holidays, students at St. Aloysius School found themselves in downtown Vicksburg shoveling sand into bags to help block rising flood waters steadily approaching their town.
The St. Al seniors, accompanied by a few alumni, chose to forgo their end-of-the-day study hall class and afternoon plans to join city employees near the waterfront for a few hours of hands-on work in preparation for the Mississippi River’s crest, which was expected to reach 50.2 feet on Friday, Jan. 15.
“Floods are a different kind of disaster,” said Warren County Emergency Management director John Elfer. “They get here slow, and they leave here slow. It’s not like a flash flood where you don’t have time to get ready for it.” And get ready for it is exactly what the St. Al students did — by helping place a sandbag wall around the Yazoo and Mississippi Valley Depot to help keep water out of the historic building. “The kids were excited to do something that they knew would have an immediate impact on their city and town,” said Joan Thornton, theology teacher at St. Al. “They were happy to do it. They really understand that the river is part of who we are in Vicksburg.”
“I think it’s always a great feeling when after you’re done you get to see how much help you’ve provided and how you’ve made an actual difference,” said senior Elizabeth Counts. “I think it was a great opportunity for some of my classmates and me to be able to directly help do something for our city. We were able to protect something that is an important part of Vicksburg.”
Despite the fact that winter floods of this magnitude are incredibly rare for the area, local agencies are prepared to deal with any needs that emerge. Organizations like United Way of West Central Mississippi and Catholic Charities have been in on phone calls and meetings with disaster recovery groups to discuss ways to best handle relief efforts.
“We’ll be looking at where the unmet needs are and coordinating so we don’t duplicate efforts,” said Dorothy Balsar, director of parish-based ministries for Catholic Charities.
“Those needs could be mucking kits or household items; maybe people will need access to temporary housing at a hotel. There are a number of ways just to help people get back on their feet and get back to normal.”
Michele Connelly, executive director of United Way in Vicksburg, said the needs during a flood event aren’t always clear from the start.
“The need for shelter is the most important as water is starting to come into homes at this time,” Connelly said just two days before the river’s predicted crest. “It’s a wait and see game for a lot of people.” Connelly also noted that cleanup after a flood is an important part of the recovery process.
“A lot of people are able to take things out of their homes because they’ve had warning, so there isn’t so much a need for donated “things” as there will be for cleaning supplies upon re-entry, and maybe some volunteer hours in helping people get back into their homes after the waters recede. Money is always extremely useful, sometimes you don’t know what the need is going to be until the need arises. Having funds on hand to meet those needs makes it easier,” Connelly said.
“Where we’ll really need people to help is when the flood is over with,” Elfer said. “This is going to be a long-term event – it’s going to be three weeks before the water goes down at least.” After the river reached a historic high of 57.1 feet in 2011, Connelly said the people of Vicksburg learned a lot about coping with such a disaster.
“There is a large group of people and nonprofits in the area ready to step up, there have been so many things already put in place; we’re blessed with a community like that.” That Great Mississippi River Flood of 2011, which saw a crest high enough for record books, taught valuable lessons about preparing for a flood, not just reacting to it.
“Because of what we did in 2011, like elevating structures and getting them out of the flood area, we won’t have as much damage this go around,” Elfer said.
But despite a better understanding, and a crest that wound up being a few feet lower than originally projected, the water has affected more than 100 homes in the area.
For those interested in donating to or getting involved with flood relief efforts, contact the following agencies or a local parish.
Warren County EMA, 601-636-1544; Catholic Charities, www.catholiccharitiesjackson.org.; United Way of West Central Mississippi, 601-636-1733.
By Mary Margaret Halford