With ‘Mother Nature in charge,’ dams unleash floodwaters

Published 2:25 pm Monday, February 17, 2020

JACKSON, Miss. — Days and days of heavy rain have created a dilemma for authorities managing dams along swollen rivers in Mississippi and Tennessee. The water has to be released eventually, worsening the flooding for people living downstream.

Dramatic video posted by a Tennessee fire department showed the impact: Two houses tumbled down a bluff over the Tennessee River, while many others have been swamped to their rooftops, as entire neighborhoods disappear in muddy water below the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Pickwick Reservoir.

“It absolutely kills you, knowing that” houses are getting destroyed downstream from the dam, TVA spokesman Jim Hopson told The Associated Press on Monday. “We have engineers on duty 24-7 trying to figure out what’s the most effective way to move this water downstream with the least impact. They feel it. I feel it.”

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February’s rains have been “400 percent of normal, and we have more coming in this week. It’s kind of a never-ending battle,” Hopson added.

Mississippi’s Pearl River, meanwhile, crested on Monday at just under 37 feet, well short of its historic worst-case-scenario, and should begin draining soon, Gov. Tate Reeves said Monday. He said there were no reports of flood-related injuries, and thanked the people of Mississippi for heeding evacuation orders. Only 16 search and rescue missions were necessary, he said, even though as many as 1,000 homes were flooded.

But Reeves also cautioned that rainfall is expected, so no one should return to a flooded home until authorities say it’s safe to do so. Forecasters expect more rain between midday Tuesday and Wednesday evening across the region, extending the misery for people with waterfront or low-lying properties.

“We as a state are not in the clear yet,” Reeves said.

The Pearl’s highest recorded crest was 43.2 feet on April 17, 1979. The second-highest level occurred May 5, 1983, when the river rose to 39.58 feet.

Officials released water from the nearby Barnett Reservoir to control its levels, after urging residents in northeastern Jackson who live in the flood zone downstream to leave immediately. By Sunday morning, Reeves said the reservoir’s inflow and outflow had equalized.