ROLLING FORK – Patience wore thin in the South Delta Wednesday night.
Several hundred business owners, farmers, families and other Mississippians filled into a high school auditorium, summoned to give their input on flood control solutions. To most of the attendees that night, that solution is the Yazoo Pumps.
Frustration in the room stemmed from decades of what the pumps’ supporters call a broken promise, and what opponents call an illusion.
Sen. Roger Wicker, who hosted the town hall meeting along with Rep. Bennie Thompson, has pressed federal officials in recent months to revisit the pumps proposal after the Environmental Protection Agency shut down the idea for the second time last November.
Wicker told the audience that the agency, after restoring a veto from 2008, promised an alternative plan to the pumps within 12 to 16 months, or at earliest this coming November.
The federal government first presented the idea of the Yazoo Pumps in 1941 as part of a response to the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927.
After decades of planning and design, the EPA first vetoed the idea in 2008, determining that the pumps could drain 67,000 acres of wetlands in the South Delta. The agency briefly brought the project back to life in 2020, when, under President Donald Trump, the EPA decided that an altered proposal that moved the pumps’ location exempted it from the 2008 veto.
Wicker and Thompson – both of whom support the project, although Thompson more tentatively in recent years – sat on the auditorium stage next to Chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality Brenda Mallory, along with representatives from four different federal agencies.
“We want an enduring solution, we recognize that what is going on in this community is unacceptable and not sustainable,” said Mallory, who added that the pumps are “not necessarily what we’re going to need today.”
Opponents of the pumps, largely scientists and conservation advocates, have pointed to the large price tag, which Thompson has estimated as around half a billion dollars. They also argue that only 17% of the half million acres that flooded in 2019 would have been spared with the pumps, citing data from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
As record-setting rainfall landed across Mississippi Wednesday, many recalled the devastating 2019 backwater flood, which left properties inundated for over six months. Some of the residents who testified on Wednesday said their homes and businesses still need repairs.
“You guys have no idea what it’s like to live through a seven-month flood,” said Ann Dahl, an Eagle Lake resident.
About thirty members of the crowd came up to the microphone over the course of two hours, displaying a wide range of hopes, emotions, and truths about the pumps.
Victoria Garland, who lives in Issaquena County, held back tears as she spoke. In 2019, she had to park at her neighbor’s home and boat through a creek to get to her house.
“The things that we saw on our trips to and from (the house) were indescribable,” Garland said.
“If you’ve never seen deer that just don’t look right, the smell of decaying flesh will more than turn your stomach at eight o’clock in the morning when you’re just trying to leave and go make some money.”
At one point, a commenter asked the audience to raise their hands if they supported building the pumps. A vast majority of hands went up.
Eventually, the crowd directed their feelings towards the bureaucrats on stage.
“Get off your asses,” one of the commenters begged.
“Have you ever had to fill a sandbag?” another audience member shouted from their seat.
While most in attendance supported the pumps, others were in favor of seeing more options presented to flood victims, such as easements, buyouts, and raising homes.
“‘Finish the pumps’ is a nice slogan,” said Ty Pinkins, an organizer and attorney, after the event. “But one solution won’t satisfy every citizen. Raising a home might be a viable solution for someone.”
The most consistent theme among the speakers on Wednesday was impatience. With generations of families having come and gone since 1941, residents are anxious to see something change in an area where roughly a third of people live in poverty.
“All the political minutia, the arguments between farmers and non-farmers, and all this other crap, I could care less about it,” said Roy Rucker, from nearby Panther Burn. “But what I do care about is the people who live here, and why industry won’t come here.”