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Story Archives: Vidalia vs. the Mighty Miss
|Vidalia vs. the Mighty Miss|
Neither man nor structure has often emerged victorious in a head-to-head bout with the Mighty Mississippi, but to date the Town of Vidalia is a contender.
It's been an intensive battle during this Great Flood of 2011 as the river climbs to historic levels.
To save its riverfront development, Vidalia is mixing the latest flood-fighting techniques with raw muscle and brawn, steel nerve and determination.
Tales of the river's mighty power and attempts to control it have been told countless times in countless ways for the past 300 years.
In 1803, Judge Thomas Rodney, recently appointed as a Mississippi territorial judge, almost met disaster on the river in route from his home state of Delaware to Natchez. The flatboat on which Rodney was a passenger hit a snag which tore a six-inch square hole in the bottom.
"We lost many things," Rodney wrote in a letter to his son.
The small crew rushed to remove what belongings they could from the flatboat to a skiff. Moments later, the raging Mississippi current tore the flat off the snag with such a jolt that the anchor fell out and held the boat, enabling the men to tow her ashore for repairs.
Rodney and his fellow passengers made it safety to Natchez although the judge recalled the men had been "without any resource but in ourselves" against the river.
That same display of human resource is at work on the Vidalia riverfront today where Mayor Hyram Copeland has worked with a team of governmental agencies -- local, district and national -- to save the public and private $75 million riverfront development. Scores of individuals, including inmates, having been fighting the rising waters for two weeks.
The city began constructing levees two weeks ago around Comfort Suites, the Riverfront Medical Complex, Promise Hospital, the convention center as well as the town's water wells.
Since May 9 the surging Mississippi has overtaken the riverfront. The U.S. Coast Guard closed river traffic at Vidalia on Monday due to flood conditions, but commerce resumed on a limited basis late Tuesday.
The river's expected to crest Saturday at 62.5 feet, 14.5 feet above flood stage, and five feet above the previous 1937 record. Today's (Wednesday) reading at Vidalia was 61.8 feet.
Vidalia riverfront buildings now appear as island fortresses, protected by Hesco baskets, sandbags and other materials.
In a flood fight two centuries ago, according to Concordia Parish Police Jury records, the Marengo levee broke on May 30, 1861. The next day a crevasse developed on a levee at Waterloo plantation on Lake Concordia, once the ancient bed of the Mississippi. Marengo Bend became the modern bend in the river after Lake Concordia and just up river from Marengo was Giles Bend.
According to Robert Dabney Calhoun's history of Concordia Parish, L.P. Conner Sr., a levee inspector, and James Surget, owner of Waterloo plantation, were present when the levee crisis developed in 1861. Conner's son told Calhoun what happened.
Surget, Calhoun wrote, protested "against keeping his slaves at work on the levee, fearing it would break and some of them be drowned. To assure Surget, Conner went down on the outer slope of the levee, to the water's edge, and to demonstrate its firmness, raised up on his toes and brought all his weight down.
"It happened that he was immediately over the weak spot, and the jar of his 225 pound weight caused the shell of the earth to give way under him. He went down and just then the levee began to blow out. He was carried along in the rush of waters until he lodged against an obstruction and lost consciousness. Men in the field ran out and carried him back to the levee." He survived and no lives were lost in the levee break, a victory for life if not for homes and crops.
In Vidalia's 2011 flood fight, the town faced it's toughest obstacle to date in its riverfront defense Sunday night when a sand boil was located at the site of an abandoned drain near the convention center.
"We got 24 hour maintenance in the building itself," said Copeland. "One of our workers called and said 'we think we've got a problem.' We got here and it was like a little geyser and all of a sudden it started coming in pretty good."
The river's current hits the north end of the riverfront with force due in part to the elimination of a big bend in the river eight decades ago.
In the 1930s the Corps of Engineers began work to straighten the Mississippi's long horseshoe curve along Giles Bend and Marengo Bend. Giles Plantation was located between both tips of the horseshoe and during the floods of 1907, 1922 and 1927 water flowed across the neck. Records show Corps engineers realized the river would soon abandon Marengo Bend and they began work to cut an artificial cutoff along the Giles Neck, which would better align the main channel.
Matilda Gresham, the wife of a Yankee general headquartered in Natchez during the Civil War, described what is now Old River -- then the main channel horseshoe bend -- in her view from the balcony of Rosalie in 1863: "...Up the river a short distance" the river "disappears behind a bend to the west twenty miles around, only to appear again across a narrow neck, about two and one-half miles to the north."
Corps engineers in the 1930s were surprised that the cutoff for the narrowing neck was slow to develop on its own. During a period of low water, they discovered the reason. Cypress trees had centuries earlier become embedded in the blue mud, obstructing the low water flow. Dredging over the next few years finally removed the natural dam making Giles Cutoff part of the main channel of the Mississippi just north of Vidalia.
As that rapid current pounded against the riverfront Sunday night, the soil boil was discovered.
"We anticipated problems like this," said Copeland. "When you get this much water coming through you're going to have some leakage in some areas."
A National Guard helicopter was utilized Monday in a sling-load operation to fortify and contain the leak in the HESCO barrier levee and contain the sand boil between the river and convention center. That process ran into obstacles, said Copeland, and a barge filled with 2,500-pound sandbags was positioned along the riverfront Tuesday with machinery to unload the material.
"We had some critical issues but we've resolved those," Copeland said Tuesday afternoon. "We're still holding our own at the convention center. We've got the water about 12 inches below the critical area. We're maintaining that and we're shoring up the outside wall in the convention center."
"I think we're going save it," said Copeland. "All the other buildings are holding good. The mainline levee's holding good.
"It's been a monumental task of everybody working together. We're not giving up."
Copeland expects the river to return to its bank by mid-June.
"We'll have a massive cleanup campaign and get that done as quickly as possible so we can get these buildings back open and get people back to their jobs on the riverfront," said Copeland.
"We're going to do it."
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