Equity debate over millions for flood mitigation in the south Delta

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Anderson Jones Sr. talks about living with substantial and repeated flooding in the Mississippi Delta during a community meeting on Aug. 29, 2022, at South Delta High School in Rolling Fork, Miss. Residents gathered to discuss the current state of affairs with representatives from agencies of the federal government and U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson and U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker. (Photo by Sarah Warnock/MCIR)

By Jimmie E. Gates


Last in a three-part series

A previous version of this story misattributed a comment made at the Aug. 24 town hall. Charles Taylor, executive director of the NAACP, urged FEMA officials to come up with a solution to flooding that is equitable for all. “It’s important that we have solutions with equity,” Taylor said. “If we don’t fix this, the suffering will continue.” The comment and quote were misattributed to Delta Regional Authority Co-Chairman Corey Wiggins, the former NAACP executive director.

Anderson Jones Sr. has nightmares whenever there’s a downpour.

Three years after his home flooded in the historic south Delta flooding of 2019, Anderson has still not been able to return to his home, which is gutted and infested with mold.

The promised federal assistance never came.

“There is no place like home,” Jones said at a meeting Aug. 24 with Democratic U. S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, Republican U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, FEMA and other federal officials. Officials gathered with about 500 people at the 600-seat South Delta High School auditorium in Rolling Fork to hear from those in communities impacted by flooding over the years about what’s needed to mitigate flooding.

In the south Mississippi Delta, flood waters in 2019 inundated 687 homes, and more than 500,000 acres were flooded in the Yazoo backwater. The flooding lasted roughly five months and sparked a renewed and ongoing debate over whether to revive the stalled federal Yazoo backwater pumps project, repeatedly approved and pulled over issues of cost sharing, concerns about its impact on wetlands and who would benefit.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers first proposed the combination of levees, drainage structures and pumps in 1941 in a response to an amendment to Congress’ Flood Control Act of 1929. Arkansas successfully lobbied Congress to remove the Eudora Floodway from the Mississippi River & Tributaries Project, an action Mississippi’s then congressional delegation recognized would cause flooding in areas in the Mississippi Delta that had been safe.

Jones said he supports the project, which would cost an estimated $440 million and take approximately four years to complete.

Yazoo backwater pumps advocate Ann Dahl of Eagle Lake in Warren County said the only viable solution to the flooding is the project.

But opponents argue the project will mostly benefit farm owners and agribusiness, not poor homeowners.

Mississippi attorney Ty Pinkins, who grew up in Sharkey County, argues that solutions to control flooding other than the pumps should be considered such as:

• Elevating homes, businesses, and low-lying roads.

• Flood proofing homes and businesses.

• Voluntarily relocating residents or buying out properties that repeatedly flood.

• Paying landowners to put frequently flooded lands into floodplain easements.

• Paying farmers to put marginal farmland into conservation easements so the federal government can restore the wetlands to store floodwaters.

Pinkins said $29 million in federal funds is available for flood mitigation projects in the backwater area.

But Dahl and other pumps project supporters say that $29 million would amount to less than $1,500 per person if it were divided among all the roughly 20,000 citizens living in the south Mississippi Delta who were affected by backwater flooding.

Cary resident Albert Thomas Sr. said he supports helping the people of Ukraine but he hopes federal officials will put more money into helping people in the Mississippi Delta deal with flooding.

FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, announced in May that it was expediting mitigation grant selections and assistance to help communities across the nation to build flood resilient property.

“We are excited about this opportunity to provide support at the earliest stages to communities, which may not have the capacity to start the application process on their own,” FEMA Deputy Administrator Erik Hooks said in a statement. “FEMA looks forward to working with these communities to find solutions to make them more resilient and reduce the impacts of climate change.”

FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Assistance programs fund acquisitions, commonly called “buyouts” – purchasing flood-prone property at a pre-flood value on the condition the property is returned to green space. The program was not designed with climate change in mind.

FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Assistance programs consist of the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, Flood Mitigation Assistance and Building Resilient Communities. 

FEMA has funded more than 45,000 buyouts across the country in the last 30 years — more than any other federal agency.

The fiscal year 2022 application period for FEMA Hazard Mitigation Assistance for the Flood Mitigation Assistance grant program and the new Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities grant programs will open on Sept. 30 and close at 4 p.m. Central Time on Jan. 27, 2023, according to FEMA.

HUD’s Community Development Block Grant program also funds buyouts after disasters.

Its one-time National Disaster Resilience Program funded the Isle de Jean Charles community relocation effort in coastal Louisiana in 2014. The island, which once encompassed 22,000 acres and now has only 320 acres, is disappearing into the Gulf of Mexico from soil erosion and the rising sea level.

In 2016, Louisiana was awarded $48.3 million in Community Development Block Grant funds to work with residents of Isle de Jean Charles to develop a voluntary plan to relocate to safer communities including developing the New Isle, a planned community about 40 miles north. Six years later, the New Isle project is ongoing.

The Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities grant program makes federal funds available to states, U.S. territories, federally recognized tribal governments and local governments for hazard mitigation activities, recognizing the growing hazards associated with climate change.

Also, the Biden’s administration $1 trillion Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, signed into law last November, earmarks $3.5 billion in flood mitigation grants over five years. As part of that funding, the administration recently announced $60 million in Swift Current funding to four states, including Mississippi. Louisiana received the bulk of the money — $40 million. New Jersey received $10 million; Pennsylvania, $5 million; and Mississippi, $5 million (for a bridge project in Biloxi).

The new Swift Current initiative will expedite mitigation grants to disaster survivors with repetitively flooded homes. This is the first FEMA initiative funded through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to strengthen national preparedness and resilience.

The four states were selected because they have the highest number of unmitigated severe repetitive loss and repetitive loss properties insured under the National Flood Insurance Program and total flood insurance claims within their respective FEMA regions.

The Brooklyn, New York-based First Street Foundation, a nonprofit research and technology group working to define the nation’s climate risk, said the flood risk in Mississippi is increasing. The state currently has 255,700 properties with substantial risk of flooding, but over the next 30 years, that risk will increase by 9.8% to 280,700, according to the First Street Foundation. The Biden administration used its information for the Swift Current initiative.

The First Street Foundation Flood Model found 10.3% of all properties across the contiguous United States at substantial risk of flooding today, and 11.4% at substantial risk in 30 years. Mississippi has a greater proportion of properties as substantial risk, with 13.6% at substantial risk today and 14.9% at substantial risk in the year 2050, the foundation says.

Charles Taylor, executive director of the NAACP,  urged FEMA officials at an Aug. 24 town hall meeting in Rolling Fork to come up with a solution to flooding that is equitable for all, noting there are a lot of vulnerable people of all races in Issaquena and Sharkey counties, where a third to almost half of residents, respectively, live in poverty.

“It’s important that we have solutions with equity,” Taylor said at the Aug. 24 meeting. “If we don’t fix this, the suffering will continue.”

This story was produced as part of a collaboration with the Center for Public Integrity, Columbia Journalism Investigations and Type Investigations.

This story was produced by the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit news organization that is exposing wrongdoing, educating and empowering Mississippians, and raising up the next generation of investigative reporters. Sign up for our newsletter at https://www.mississippicir.org/sign-up.

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Equity debate over millions for flood mitigation in the south Delta

By Jackson Advocate News Service
October 24, 2022