Saturday, June 8, 2019

The Flood of 2019 (Part 1): Vicksburg, Mississippi


The Mississippi River and Yazoo Backwater flood of 2019 will go down in the record books as one of the longest-lasting inundations in this part of the world. The Mississippi River rose above flood stage of 43 ft on the Vicksburg gauge in early January and stayed high June In the meantime, the central part of the state received record rainfall in January and February, filling creeks and streams in the Yazoo Backwater.
Plot of water level measured at the Vicksburg Gage, located near the Interstate 20 bridge. Major flood is defined as 50.0 ft on the gage. Plot from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Plot of Mississippi River stage over the first five months of 2019. Spike in mid-May is a bad data point.

Brief background

Let me digress with a short explanation of the hydrology of the region and why you see so much water. Levees (or dikes) line the Mississippi River all the way from central Missouri to the mouth of the river in the Gulf of Mexico, well south of New Orleans. The purpose of the levees is to prevent the river from flooding farmland and towns in the midwest during high river stages. The Yazoo River is a tributary of the Mississippi, meaning it flows into the larger river. The Yazoo drains west central Mississippi, much of it comprising the broad flat alluvial plain known as the Mississippi Delta (the same Delta famed for Blues music).

But during high water, several complicated issues arise:
  • Problem no. 1: If the Mississippi River is in flood, the water will back up the Yazoo and inundate farmland and towns. Therefore, the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) built levees along the Yazoo. The USACE installed flood control gates into the levee at a place called Steele Bayou, near the town of Redwood. The USACE closes the gates to prevent those flood waters from rolling over the farms of the southern Delta.
  • Problem no. 2: If there has been heavy local rain in west central Mississippi, the streams and bayous of the Delta rise. But if the Mississippi is simultaneously in flood, the Steele Bayou gates are closed. Therefore, there is no place for the local runoff to drain out, and the water collects and rises behind (or north of) the gates. February to June of 2019 was one of these periods when both the Mississippi River was in flood and there had been torrential rain in the state of Mississippi – for weeks. There was no place for the water in the Yazoo Backwater to go, and the area experienced the longest-lasting inundation since the 1973 flood. 
  • To add complexity to this problem: in 1941, Congress authorized the USACE to install pumps near Steele Bayou to pump Yazoo backwater water up and over the levee into the Yazoo River. However, the construction was not funded. These pumps would be some of the largest on earth and today would cost over $300 million. The EPA cancelled this project in 2008. Congress, farmers, and environmentalists have been fighting over the infamous pumps since the 1940s. You see where this is going….
I will divide this topic into three articles. This first will show photographs from Vicksburg and the area south of the Steele Bayou flood gate, meaning the area directly influenced by the water elevation on the Mississippi River. The next two articles will cover the terrain north of the Steele Bayou flood gate, the southern part of the Mississippi Delta (note, this is not the delta in the Gulf of Mexico - the terminology is confusing).

For some more information about how all this water reaches the Gulf of Mexico, see my 2011 article about the Old River Control.

Vicksburg scenes

Yazoo Canal from North Washington Street
These are the flooded woods next to the Yazoo Canal along North Washington Street. Unfortunately, many little forest animals like possums and raccoons come out of the woods and get hit by cars.
Big River Shipbuilders on Port Terminal Circle, Port of Vicksburg, March 21, 2019 (Fuji Acros film, Vito BL camera)
The shipbuilding and repair company needed to set up a floating walkway for their employees.
Ford Road, Vicksburg, March 8, 2019 (Hasselblad 501CM, 80mm f/2.8 CB Planar lens)
The Ford subdivision, located just north of the Vicksburg Forest Products complex, floods almost every year recently. I asked an older gent why the houses were allowed to be built in this vulnerable area. He said in the past, other than during the historic 1973 flood, the land did not flood. If this is true, what had changed?
Young Alley, Vicksburg (80mm Planar lens)
Vicksburg Southern Railroad (VSOR) tracks extending north to International Paper mill north of Redwood (250mm Sonnar lens)
The cottages off Young Alley appeared to be dry this year. Further north, the Vicksburg Southern Railroad tracks serve as a levee, keeping the water partly away from North Washington Street.
Raised mobile home off Falk Steel Road, photograph taken from VSOR tracks, March 8, 2019 (50mm Distagon lens)
The raised mobile home os on its own berm, therefore being safe from flooding. I saw a fellow leave the house and walk through the water using a garbage sack as a form of waders.
Kings Crossing Road west of N. Washington Street, March 15, 2019 (80mm Planar lens)
Kings Crossing Road leads west to some fields and woods. Many years ago, a fellow had a number of railroad postal cars parked in a field, but an old gent in a pickup truck said the rail cars were dragged away for scrap. The gent in the truck said the aluminum boat was his and he used it to get to his house.
Farm road off N. Washington Street, March 14, 2019 (250mm Sonnar lens)
In the photograph above, the flooded fields are beyond the railroad embankment and tracks.

The color photographs are from expired Kodak Ektar 25 film, exposed with a tripod-mounted Hasselblad 501CM camera with 50mm, 80mm, and 250mm Zeiss lenses. The colors are not quite right, but by using the gray dropper tool, the SilverFast scanner software recovered most colors.

High- and low-water records


Flood Categories (in feet)
Major Flood Stage:50
Moderate Flood Stage:46
Flood Stage:43
Action Stage:35

Historic Crests
(1) 57.10 ft on 05/19/2011
(2) 56.20 ft on 05/04/1927
(3) 53.20 ft on 02/21/1937
(4) 52.80 ft on 06/06/1929
(5) 52.50 ft on 04/28/1922
(6) 51.60 ft on 05/13/1973
(7) 51.50 ft on 02/15/1916
(8) 51.00 ft on 04/20/2008
(9) 50.23 ft on 01/15/2016
(10) 50.20 ft on 04/16/1897

Show More Historic Crests

(P): Preliminary values subject to further review.

Recent Crests
(1) 49.90 ft on 03/16/2018
(2) 48.50 ft on 05/25/2017
(3) 36.44 ft on 05/22/2016
(4) 43.32 ft on 03/18/2016
(5) 50.23 ft on 01/15/2016
(6) 37.32 ft on 12/14/2015
(7) 45.96 ft on 07/26/2015
(8) 37.84 ft on 06/08/2015
(9) 42.98 ft on 04/01/2015
(10) 38.40 ft on 04/20/2014

Show More Recent Crests

Low Water Records
(1) -7.00 ft on 02/03/1940
(2) -6.80 ft on 11/01/1939
(3) -5.80 ft on 01/06/1964


  1. Great post.thank you so much.Love this blog.

  2. We are in St. Louis a couple days. Up close you really get a sense of how disruptive the flooding is to movement and commerce. The scene is impressive on the ground, but I'm sure one would get a much better idea of the extent of the flooding from the air.

  3. Great article, great pictures. I think this flood has now outlasted the 1973 flood. I think we are now heading toward the five month mark for some folks to have standing water in their homes. It's devastating..

    1. You are right. Some friends in Eagle Lake have had a rough time. Please look at the next two articles, where I show photographs from further north.