As Climate Crisis Fuels Earlier Rains, Southern Cities Face Inland Flooding

Communities along swaths of the Mississippi River, the Missouri River and the Red River are facing above-average flood risk heading into what are traditionally some of the wettest months of the year. Meanwhile, spring flooding came early to the South, fueled by precipitation levels hundreds of percentage points higher than what the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) refers to as “normal.”

In Georgia, the extra water has kept farmers from fertilizing fields of onions, while in North Carolina, the temperature boost has brought early strawberry and blueberry blossoms — susceptible to frost and a season’s lost crop. The floods are worrisome but not surprising given that, across the world, surface temperatures were higher on average in January 2020 than ever before, much of the South saw the wettest winter on record, and elevated soil moisture levels have left riverbanks and wetlands unable to absorb much additional water. These regions of the United States were also hit by widespread spring flooding in 2019.

In central Mississippi, residents in the Pearl River floodplain are dealing with flooded homes for the second time since the year began. Kenneth Short, a northeast Jackson resident, has lost all he owns. “Everything from a fork to a bedroom set,” he tells Truthout. Short moved into his one-story brick house on River Cove in 2017. “Never were we told about being in the flood zone,” he says. “We realized that when we moved in and met our neighbors and got acclimated with them,” he says. Short and his wife purchased rental insurance, but they have since found out it does not cover items damaged in floods.

After officials opened up the Ross Barnett Reservoir — a safety measure to enable the same amount of water to flow out of the reservoir into the Pearl River as was flowing in (80,000 cubic feet per second) — the river crested at 36.67 feet on February 17. Only two other floods in the last century have seen higher water levels: The Pearl River rose to 43.28 feet in 1979 and 39.58 feet in 1983. But those events occurred in April and May — well after spring equinox. This year, floodwater started trickling into some neighborhoods, like Short’s, in the first two weeks of January.

Petra Döll is a hydrology professor at the Goethe University Frankfurt in Germany and a lead writer for two recent United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports. To measure the degree to which a given weather event may have been made more severe by humans generating carbon dioxide and releasing it into the atmosphere, she tells Truthout, scientists run numerous models based on a similar case.

“Attribution science,” as it’s called, is a relatively new field, and there’s no way of knowing how much climate change has worsened an event like the flooding in Mississippi as it unfolds. We can, however, draw comparisons from studies on flooding events that have already occurred, like one in Wales and England in 2000, Döll says. “The magnitude of that flood was 10 times higher than it would be without any anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions,” she says. According to one of the IPCC reports Döll co-authored, climate change is projected to increase risk of events like inland flooding in urban areas, like Jackson, creating new “poverty traps.”

More so than climate change, says Millsaps College biology professor Will Selman, Jackson’s flooding crisis stems from poor city planning and zoning regulations. “One of the main problems in the southeast is that there has been unimpeded development in floodplains.” Short says the majority of structures that experienced flooding in 2020 also flooded in 1979. But instead of offering voluntary home buyback programs — which give homeowners in flood-prone areas the ability to relocate and spur a revitalization of natural wetlands that absorb stormwater — or prohibiting new construction throughout the Pearl River floodplain, the city allowed for rebuilding.

Short’s former home sits a third of a mile away from the banks of the river, which loops southwest through oxbow channels after spilling out of the Ross Barnett Reservoir three miles to the north. “We should have some kind of restriction on what can be built there,” Selman says.

Helen Brown lives five streets away from Short, toward the end of a longer cul-de-sac that juts north, away from the Pearl River. She bought her house in the leafy neighborhood of mostly single-family ranch homes in 2002. State law now requires sellers to present prospective buyers with a written disclosure statement that reveals prior flooding damage and the owner’s “awareness” of proximity to a FEMA-designated flood zone. But Brown has noticed that the set of streets closest to the riverbanks, where homes are occupied by tenants rather than property owners, have been the first to fill up with water in both January and February floods.

According to a 2019 investigation by NPR, federal recovery dollars follow those with more wealth. In Brown’s neighborhood, the difference in recovery appears to fall along the lines of renters on lower ground without flood insurance and homeowners on higher ground whose homes were spared, plus a third group of those who plan to cash in on flood insurance.

Another way natural disasters widen existing inequality is through a divergence in credit scores over time, according to a 2019 report by the Urban Institute. After experiencing a disaster such as a flood, residents with already poor credit scores who experience a “medium-sized” natural disaster in the U.S. saw credit scores drop 15.5 points on average a year after a storm, and 29 points after four years, as compared to four- and eight-point drops for those with more resources. Financial struggles may be greater for people experiencing medium-sized disasters like the Jackson flood because these disasters do not tend to receive the federal support that larger ones do, the report explains, so paying for recovery falls directly on individuals.

In Mississippi, flooding has brought insult to injury from all sides. The state is also dealing with a prison crisis — 26 prisoners have died in Mississippi correctional facilities since December 29. Family members of those incarcerated at the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility, just outside of Jackson, have reported ongoing floodwater in the shorter-term “quick bed” units. “Family members of incarcerated people are already under strain for being a caretaker,” says Pauline Rogers, a prison reform advocate and the founder of RECH Foundation, a community organization that supports families impacted by incarceration. That means staying in touch with loved ones to make sure they haven’t sustained any kind of injury or illness, going to visit them regularly and advocating for them if there are any problems — which, she says there tend to be these days. “Most of these families are already on a fixed income,” Rogers says, and losing a car to floodwater, or having to spend money on a hotel for the weekend, could be the difference between being able to support an incarcerated family member or not.

Gov. Tate Reeves has announced plans to close the most notoriously dangerous cell block at the state penitentiary. His response to flooding has largely centered on reporting water levels and urging residents to document damage and report it on the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency website, which will help the state obtain disaster relief funds. Meanwhile, Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba has joined local officials in pointing to the $350 millionOne Lake” plan to stave off future flooding events — a new dam would create a 10-mile lake where the Pearl River floodwaters now lie.

Selman, the biology professor, says building a new dam would be an antiquated response that would damage around 2,000 acres of wetlands. It wouldn’t help with flood prevention. “It is about economic development and increasing property values for a select few that will now have lakeshore property for development,” he wrote in a February 20 op-ed in the Jackson Free Press. Representatives for Governor Reeves have not responded to requests for comment. Mayor Lumumba’s office declined an interview request, citing that the mayor and his team were “incredibly busy with recovery.”

“Low- and moderate-income people are falling through the cracks of how our emergency planning system is,” says Carlos Martín, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute. The traditional model of disaster management centers on relief and property rebuilding, rather than education around renting, buying and insuring. Part of improving a community’s resilience following a crisis requires that leaders deal with disaster as part of a pattern, rather than as a “one-off,” Martín continues. “Not accepting that climate change is a reality is denying that these events are going to be increasing in frequency and severity over the next hundred years.” If you’re a good steward of your community’s resources, he says, you should want to know exactly which risks your community faces.

Residents in the Pearl River’s path are trying to get their lives back to normal. After the river crested and Helen Brown ventured home, she found water flowing all around, but the house itself had remained dry, like a little island. She couldn’t believe it. “We were just out of our home for a week. That isn’t anything compared to what our neighbors lost,” she says. Brown says many of her neighbors, especially those who had been renting, have told her they don’t plan to come back.

Rental homes take longer to rebuild than owner-occupied dwellings, Martín points out, so renters tend to move elsewhere, rather than wait. Although homeowners like Brown are required to have flood insurance, with premiums rising to match the heightened likelihood of extreme rain and severe flooding, some residents are expected to be unable to keep up with the cost of protection, prompting a foreclosure crisis in higher-risk areas. “So it’s this major demographic change that occurs in the short term, but that is replicated in the longer term,” Martín says.

“Move back in there?” Short asks Truthout when questioned on whether he has plans to return to the northeast Jackson neighborhood. “No ma’am, never.”