River floodwaters leave lives in limbo
The low buzz turned into murmurs of disbelief, then into cries of “That’s Jack’s, that’s Sally’s....that’s mine.”
Tunica Cut-off residents watched in disbelief as hundreds of photographs of their flooded homes and businesses flashed across a screen at the G.W. Henderson Recreation Center last Saturday.
County emergency management officials planned for 75 but found themselves with standing room only, as several hundred people crowded in or stood in the hallway or outside the building entirely.
Several county officials made presentations, including emergency manager Randy Stewart, who updated the crowd on the river’s expected crest. Stewart continued to answer questions while some 300 photographs taken at the four Cut-off camps Saturday morning played on a screen at the front of the room.
Tunica Cut-off was evacuated completely by April 29, as the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta levee closed to all but official traffic. Utility service to the camps was suspended by the end of that week also.
Of the 200 homes in four fishing camps west of the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta levee, only a handful are not affected by floodwaters, officials say. The Mississippi crested Tuesday at Memphis, meaning the river was expected to crest here 24 hours later.
Local officials have been hard put to answer all the questions swirling around the Cut-off’s future. Most of the homes were built long before Tunica County adopted a flood ordinance and new flood maps that set elevations of 15 to 20 feet for new construction at the Cut-off. The existing homes, most up on “stilts” of varying height, were “grandfathered in” when the new statute was passed in 2008; that is, the older homes were allowed to remain at their current height, whether they were 10 feet in the air or sitting at ground level.
Camp residents are accustomed to flooding, and most resisted the county’s initial calls for evacuation of the area. After all, Cut-off folk have boated in and out to the camps in many high-water years. In fact, the Cut-off camps can count on at least one river rise a year, sometimes more. They’ve never been called on to leave their homes and take out their possessions before–they’ve simply moved vehicles to the dry side of the levee, tied down “stuff” at ground level and kept to higher levels in the homes until the water went down.
When the first calls to evacuate came, Nel-Win Camp homeowners Cindy and Kingston Blenis thought this flood was the same as years’ past. Then the news that this high water event could be of historic proportions began to sink in.
When water got up on their steps about two feet, the Blenises knew they would have to get out, believing they had no choice but to leave behind a lifetime’s accumulation of possessions. But one day a friend showed up with an 18-wheeler and young student volunteers from Tunica Academy began to load everything for the couple.
“We moved almost everything but our bedroom set,” Blenis said. Her home on the lake side was one of the first to get water inside. Now it’s completely under.
“We may buy a fifth-wheeler (RV) and stay part of the year near our family in Florida,” she said.
Blenis isn’t sure if they will rebuild, even though the Blenises own more than one parcel of land at Nel-Win camp, where residents can buy lots. At Charlie’s Camp, Bordeaux Point and at Carol’s (formerly Messer’s camp), many own their homes but rent their lots. Others are renters entirely.
Tula Starr of Burlison, TN and her husband bought a weekend place on Bluebird Trail at Tunica Cut-off two years ago. Starr said her home was built about 15 feet above ground level, but she hasn’t seen any pictures of their place yet, so she doesn’t know if it has survived the river’s onslaught. Their son had been living there full-time for about nine months before the water started rising.
A weekly columnist for The Collierville Herald newspaper, Starr lived on the banks of the Mississippi at Randolph north of Memphis for nine years, then moved inland to the small community of Burlison. Her Cut-off home is insured, just not with flood insurance, a situation common to a large majority of the camp residents.
County planner Pepper Bradford said only 71 residential properties in the entire county have flood insurance; few of those are located at Tunica Cut-off, he believes.