FACES OF THE FLOODS: Levee board member shares frustration with environmental misinformation
Published at 04:00 on Saturday, November 5, 2022
Faces of the Floods is a Vicksburg Post series that tells the stories of people affected by catastrophic flooding in the Yazoo Backwater area.
There are things that simply cannot be invisible.
Though not from the South Delta, Mississippi Levee Board member and Greenville native Hank Burdine spent every day of the 2019 Yazoo backwater flood rolling along the main levee in his truck. or crossing floodwaters in his boat. During that six-month period, Burdine said he witnessed events that have haunted him ever since.
A longtime sportsman in the Mississippi Delta and a member of the levee’s board of directors for a decade, Burdine said these sites, especially when it comes to the region’s wildlife, are hard to digest in the literal sense and figure of the expression.
“We don’t see a lot of what we call turkey vultures here,” Burdine said. “In 2019 – and I’m sorry if I’m choking – I saw something that I swear I never want to see again. I call it the Tree of Death. There were over 400 vultures at red-headed in a tree, belching and vomiting because there were carcasses everywhere.
“The dead deer, the baby fawns, the things I saw, I never want to see them again,” he added. “I want to know if a ring dike will solve the environmental devastation that occurs without these pumps.”
These memories also motivate him to fight misinformation regarding the Yazoo Pumps project.
During the Aug. 24 listening session hosted by Sen. Roger Wicker and Rep. Bennie Thompson at South Delta High School in Rolling Fork, Burdine was one of dozens of attendees who addressed a delegation from the Biden administration. That night, he shared some memories of floods he witnessed and reiterated the Levee Board’s position that Yazoo Backwater Pumps are a necessity for all living creatures in the area.
Burdine also pointed to what he said were discrepancies between the data presented against the pumps and the evidence that they would be beneficial. An example he used to illustrate these inconsistencies is the plight of the pondberry.
“Before the 2008 veto (of the proposed Yazoo pump project), the Corps of Engineers went down and identified over 190 colonies of an endangered plant species called pondberry,” Burdine said. “Two years ago, after the 2019 flood, they went back to every exact GPS location of the approximately 190 pondberry colonies – they found 65. We are supposed to protect the environment through the EPA, but we just destroyed the engine 60 percent of the blackberries that were in our garden.
“Isn’t the EPA supposed to protect this endangered plant? ” he added. “What exactly is going on here? It’s supposed to be an environmental protection agency, not an environmental policy agency.
In the two years since the 2019 Yazoo Backwater Flood, the Levee Board had every reason to be cautiously optimistic that the pump project would be completed after its promise in the 1940s.
When the Trump administration approved the pump project in late 2020, that optimism was reinforced. However, it was not even a year later that the project was rejected under the Biden administration following a request for an investigation made by Representative Bennie Thompson at the Environmental Protection Agency.
This news, Burdine said, felt like a betrayal.
“We (the Mississippi Levee Board) feel pretty much stabbed in the back,” he said.
It extends beyond the EPA to national and regional activist groups as well, Burdine added. So much so that, in what he called an information effort, Burdine invited representatives of groups who are outspoken against Yazoo backwater pumps to board his boat during the 2019 flood to see the devastation in person.
No one accepted his invitation, he said.
“I sent out invitations to the Audubon Society, the Sierra Club, all those Jackson people with reps saying ‘no, no, no,'” he said. “No one would even dare to respond to an invitation. …What did they think, I was going to throw them out of the boat?
During his testimony at the August 24 meeting, Burdine went so far as to address Mississippi Sierra Club manager Louie Miller and ask him directly, “Were you in the Mississippi Delta during the flood swirl?
Miller replied, “We’ll have to talk after the meeting.”
“I don’t think (the environmentalists) understand one iota,” Burdine said.
Going forward, he added, the Mississippi Levee Board’s goal appears to be clear.
“This whole project is under the auspices of the Mississippi Levee Board,” he said. “We spent a lot of money to try these pumps, because we know the validity, the profitability. If these pumps had been put in place and had not been vetoed in 2008, they would have paid for themselves triple.
If you or someone you know is a South Delta resident affected by the Yazoo Backwater flooding, email the Vicksburg Post editor at [email protected] to share your story.