As Flooding Spreads in Mississippi, Officials Say the Worst Is Still Ahead
PEARL, Miss. — Water continued to rise and spread in Mississippi on Sunday in what threatened to be one of the most severe floods in decades to hit the central part of the state. Officials warned residents to clear out, because the worst of the flooding was still to come.
“We do not anticipate this situation ending anytime soon,” Gov. Tate Reeves said on Sunday morning during a briefing at a state emergency operations center in Pearl, Miss., just outside of Jackson. “It will be days before we are out of the woods and the water starts to recede,” he added.
The governor repeated a plea that he and other officials starting making as soon as the gravity of the flooding became clear: “Protect yourself and protect your family.”
Water levels did not rise as quickly overnight as officials had anticipated. Still, law enforcement officers were going door to door, repeating in person the call to leave. Sandbags were distributed by the thousands, and rescue crews with boats and high-water vehicles were standing by on Sunday to rescue anyone who became stranded. As of Sunday morning, though, officials said that no injuries had been reported and there had been no new calls for rescues, after four on Saturday.
The swollen Pearl River has already spilled into parts of Jackson, the state capital, and other communities along its banks. Forecasters expected the floodwaters to continue flowing outward, threatening a broader swath of the area, including the heart of the state government in downtown Jackson.
The river is rising so high because a reservoir just upstream has been filled to capacity by days of torrential rain. Officials at the Ross R. Barnett Reservoir, a 33,000-acre lake northeast of Jackson, said they had to open its spillway Saturday night to release water into the river when the reservoir exceeded its capacity. As a result, officials have projected that the river by Monday would crest as high as 38 feet, a mark not seen since 1983.
The flow from the reservoir increased gradually through the night before reaching its maximum on Sunday morning. But reservoir officials said that the lake stabilized overnight, allowing them to release less total water than they had originally expected.
“At about 3 a.m., we saw the lake respond to our incremental increases of discharge and we decided not to make our last increase,” said John G. Sigman, general manager of Pearl River Valley Water Supply District.
Officials estimated that more than 2,400 structures would be affected by the flooding — most of them in Hinds County, which includes Jackson, but also some in neighboring Rankin and Madison Counties.
The Pearl River has not reached 38 feet since the devastating floods in 1983 and 1979, two of the worst to hit the central part of the state in recent history. The 1979 event set the record, with the river cresting at 43 feet, submerging a large area of Jackson, including downtown.
“I thought it would come up faster,” Bryan Bailey, the Rankin County sheriff, said on Sunday morning, according to The Clarion-Ledger newspaper in Jackson. “What the experts are saying is the Pearl River is flowing more efficiently than it did in the ’79 and ’83 floods.” He added, “That’s a good thing.”
The new flood has created yet another test for Mr. Reeves, the Republican who took office as governor just over a month ago and has already faced a spell of destructive weather, including torrential rains and tornadoes, and a crisis inside the state’s prisons that escalated after a burst of violence and discord in recent weeks.
On Saturday, as the severity of the flood grew more evident, Mr. Reeves joined local officials in beseeching residents in the potential flood zone to head out while they could still do it without the help of rescuers. “The water is coming,” Mike Word, the director of emergency operations for Rankin County, said in a televised briefing before the spillway was opened. “We have told you and told you and told you this, so please, heed our warnings.”
Before the worst of the flooding and the return of rainfall on Saturday night, officials were worried that residents would ignore the warnings because the weather had cleared briefly, with sunshine and temperatures in the 60s that were most welcome after so much rain. “Do not let that lull you into a false sense of hope,” the governor warned.
Across the area, officials handed out sandbags, or at least had mounds of sand available to the public. (“It is self-serve,” the Flowood Police Department said on its Facebook page, “so bring a shovel.”) In all, the governor said, more than 146,000 sandbags had been distributed.
Only 17 people spent the night on Saturday in an evacuation shelter with capacity for more than 100, officials said. And there were signs that residents had heeded the authorities’ warnings, most notably the falloff in new calls for rescue assistance. “We didn’t have many responses last night,” Gregory S. Michel, executive director of the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency, said in the briefing on Sunday morning. It was an indication, he added, “that people were doing what they needed to do.”
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