Mississippi residents struggle to recover from Mississippi River flood

Saturday, June 18, 2011 | 3:59 p.m. CDT

VICKSBURG, Miss. — James Winters walked slowly through the sweltering remains of his waterlogged home, then wiped the sweat from his brow and pointed to a ceiling fan — the sagging blades were covered in mold because the Mississippi River flooded his house to the ceiling.

"I don't know if I can save this place," he says. "I hate to see it go down like this. I used to have a heavenly life."

There are signs of progress along the Mississippi River, which has dropped below flood stage everywhere in Mississippi except for Natchez. Authorities planned to open the Steele Bayou Structure, a key flood gate that has been closed since April 25, on Saturday. The structure keeps water from going into the Yazoo River backwater area where the river meets the Mississippi near Vicksburg.

Not so long ago, Winters, a 60-year-old crane operator, was finishing up an addition to his Vicksburg home and planning for retirement. But on a recent afternoon, Winters and his wife sat in the garage of their ruined house, wondering about the future. Piles of putrid clothes, furniture and building materials were in the front yard.

"I sure didn't expect this," he said.

Col. George "Thatch" Shepard Jr., deputy commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Mississippi Valley Division, said recently while on a barge on the Mississippi River that farmers in some areas have replanted fields that had flooded, including in the spillway where a levee in Missouri was blown to protect the town of Cairo, Ill.

"This was the epic flood," Shepard said.

Recovery has been slow. Hundreds of homes in low-lying areas and on the unprotected side of Mississippi River levees were flooded, some of them in cities like Memphis, Tenn., and Vicksburg. Many others were damaged in rural areas. The flooded Mississippi River forced tributaries like the Yazoo River to flow backward for miles, flooding tens of thousands of acres.

"We are in recovery mode," said Vicksburg Fire Chief Charles Atkins. "But that could take a long time."

In Vicksburg, a 69-year-old man whom friends described as nice, but troubled, died.

In May, witnesses said Walter Cook walked to his favorite store, The Klondyke, which was already surrounded by water, and asked for a lighter. Instead of heading for dry land, he walked into deeper water and collapsed. He died in a hospital a few days later of a brain injury from drowning.

The Klondyke has reopened now, but one of its most loyal customers will never be back.

"Everybody knew Walt. He's fondly remembered. He'd give away the food on his plate and the money in his wallet. I've seen him do it," said Klondyke owner David Day.

The Klondyke is back to selling hot breakfast, plate lunches and cold beer.

"Business is slow, but we'll be back," Day said.

These are trying times around here, and people like Judith Stampley appreciate what might seem like small blessings.

Stampley, a 71-year-old retired teacher, moved in with her sister when the water flooded her home in Vicksburg. She wondered if her piano would survive. It's the one she learned to play on when she was 12.

"I've got mold in my house. And I've got a lot of cleaning up to do. But I still got my piano, and it still plays," Stampley said.

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