River drops...but not fast enough
As floodwaters steadily receded this week from the Mississippi River’s May 11 crest at 47.8 feet, Tunica County’s planning department issued a 15-point preliminary timeline “for returning to the Tunica Cut-off area.”
Access roads to the four camps situated on the east bank of the oxbow lake are emerging form the debris-filled water, and residents are increasingly anxious to see for themselves the damage to the 225 permanent homes and 100 plus other structures in the area.
“I want to see what’s going on with my house,” said Cassiopeia, who owns a “house house” at Nel-Win Camp and rooms with her daughter Janis ‘J.J.’ Robertson.
“We saw the pictures, but there’s no way to get a sense of what it really looks like.”
The two found a temporary home at The Columns Bed & Breakfast in the town of Tunica after evacuating April 29 and are already receiving rental assistance from FEMA.
But they left behind furnishings, memorabilia and hundreds of books. They say they will try to comply with county stipulations and vow to return to the place both describe in idyllic terms.
“It’s more like a retirement area,” J.J. explains. “There are benefits for people all the time. Everybody helps everybody out there.”
The Yazoo Mississippi Delta Levee Board re-opened the levee late Monday, May 23, clearing one hurdle for the Cut-off evacuees.
Early this week, county officials began taking applications for demolition permits but by mid-week were still waiting for floodwaters to go down to start preliminary inspections and clean-up.
“Even though the Memphis gauge is down to 35.67 feet (as of presstime Wednesday), we’re thinking that water draining from the White River into the Mississippi is keeping the water up in the Cut-off,” county planner Pepper Bradford said.
A big step in the process is securing an appointment with the Damage Assessment Team sent by Mississippi Emergency Management to assist county staff.
The team and the homeowner will go inside each home that is deemed safe to enter. Unsound buildings must be removed without an interior inspection, according to planners’ timelines.
“If a home is deemed ‘substantially damaged’ (repairs estimated to be at least 50 percent of value of home), homeowners must fill out a Floodplain Development Permit, AND the home must be raised to a minimum of one foot above 205.5 feet before repairs begin. Submission of an Elevation Certificate that includes a survey will be required for a Building Application,” the timeline states.
Faces of the Flood: Billy Stearnes
Billy Stearnes and his dogs were recently evacuated from their home in the Tunica Cut-off community, but his home was not affected by the water until it reached almost 48 feet, just shy of the historic 48.7 foot flood of 1937.
“I’m ready to go back. That’s my home,” Stearnes said.
Evacuated on April 29 from his home of 38 years at Tunica Cut-off, home to more than 300 people, Stearnes lived in the northwest corner of Nel-Win Camp. He had enough time to gather a few prized possessions but could not get everything moved out of his home in time.
“Just being displaced and have to move my pets out is a bother, and it’s kind of like a kick in the belly when they tell you water has gone up in your house.”
Stearnes, 71, who has been retired for 19 years, says he is definitely ready to return to his home and start cleaning up.
“It’s hard when someone tells you, you can’t go back to your home. It’s 100 percent destroyed,” and that is a message many Cut-off residents have heard, he said.
Stearnes said he is prepared to view the mess and believes there was at least a foot of water in his home. If the assessed damage exceeds 50 percent, he must completely rebuild. But Stearnes hopes he can remodel rather than rebuild because he cannot build another house higher or on higher ground.
He said he has faith in the community, which has already been organizing volunteers to start the rebuilding process when they return.
“There is just a special breed of people out there on the Cut-off,” Stearnes said, “We care for each other out there, we work together, and I really want to get back to our same way of life.”
He said he is thankful for all that MEMA, FEMA and the Red Cross have done to help the community. “I feel like we’re in good hands, overall,” he said.
He says that in the next two to three years, everything will be close to the same it was at the Cut-off.
“That’s just home,” he said. “A good percentage of us want to go back. We might lose 50 percent of the residents, but they will filter back in.”
Stearnes hopes that Cut-off residents can return soon, to finally see the damage to their homes later this week, and that the rest of the community will pitch in to help with the cleanup.
“We don’t need handouts, just consideration,” he said. “You go in and do the best you can with what you’ve got to work with. People on this side of the levee need to understand what we’re going through. All people want to do is just go home and back to their way of life. I don’t think we are asking a lot.”
Local man’s death under review
A man whose body was found Monday afternoon in his vehicle, which was submerged in Lake Hamilton near the Clarion Resort, 4813 Central Ave., has been identified as Charles Ewing, 56, of Tunica, Miss.
The victim, who was driving an apparently brand-new Cadillac CTS sports coupe, was reportedly on vacation in Hot Springs.
The vehicle was submerged in 8 to 10 feet of water about 100 feet out from the shore at the back of the hotel’s parking lot.
County makes cutbacks
Following an hour long executive session on personnel issues, the Board of Supervisors announced a reduction in time for county employees. A 32 hour work week went into effect on Monday, May 16. Department heads are in charge of deciding how to stagger employees to remain open for five days a week.
The board discussed the action, not naming specific personnel, in open session.
Beat 2 Supervisor Cedric Burnett recommended that employees take a pay cut rather than reducing hours.
“Let’s just go from 2011 pay grade to 2005 pay grade,” Burnett said. “If we cut everybody 15 to 20 percent for two months, that’ll save us $132,000 a month. If we do that for two months, that’ll save us over $200,000.”
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