Most of the time, Tommy and Kay Jones, who live at the end of Bigbee Loop right on the Tennessee-Tombigbee River, go to the river.
But on occasion, Tommy said Thursday, the river comes to them.
That’s the case right now, with flood waters under his home — built on stilts — and his river deck completely immersed. The only way for him or Kay to leave is to take their paddle boat and literally paddle down their street, past Reuben’s — which on Thursday had just managed to escape flood waters — and the butterfly garden at the Columbus Riverwalk, all the way to where the end of their street meets the west end of Main Street.
As of late Thursday afternoon, the Columbus area had seen five to six inches of rain since Monday, while Starkville saw 6.5 inches, according to Marty Pope, a senior hydrologist with the National Weather Service’s Jackson office. Parts of the Tombigbee River have risen more than 21 feet in the last few days of rain.
The rains have sent many of the “river people,” as Bigbee Loop resident Ann Marie Miller referred to herself and her neighbors, to higher ground. Miller and her husband, Carson Miller, packed up some belongings, their 4-month-old daughter and their dog and drove to stay with Ann Marie’s parents in Clay County until the water goes down.
“It’s a little surreal getting in your kayak,” Ann Marie said Thursday afternoon after she and Carson had, indeed, kayaked to their home to turn off their electrical breaker. Their home, built up on approximately eight-foot stilts, was two feet away from the flood waters. “I told Carson, ‘What if we were just river people and our entire lives we went everywhere by kayak?’ Instead of walking around the block, we go paddle around the block. It’s strange.”
Becky Cox and her three children were forced to evacuate their home on Pine Avenue Thursday afternoon. The family of four is now staying with Cox’s sister on the other side of town, she said.
Wednesday afternoon, Cox said, water started to cover the road, but she decided to stay. The next morning her driveway and backyard were flooded. By early Thursday afternoon, she felt the need to leave.
“I had a few patches of green grass still showing through,” Cox said. “I guess (around) 11 o’clock … my back tires started sitting in the water.
“It was scary,” she said. “I’ve never experienced anything like this before.”
Cox said she was told that it might be three days before she can return to her home. Fortunately, she said, water did not flood the inside of the house.
Now that they are safe, Cox said the family will carry on with their daily routine.
“We got school tomorrow, I have to work,” Cox said. “Everything is still the normal.”
Others, like Tommy and Kay who are both retired, plan to stick it out.
“We ride it out,” he said. “As long as we’ve got power and water, we hang in there.”
This is the second year in a row flood waters have covered properties like the Columbus Soccer Complex and Terry Brown Amphitheater at the Columbus Riverwalk.
Columbus and Lowndes County officials said the damage to public property can’t be determined for sure until the water recedes.
Faced with the flooding in parts of the city, Columbus Public Information Officer Joe Dillon said extreme weather can’t be controlled but the city is trying to minimize the damage. He said he believes that “the benefits (of living near the river) outweigh the possibility of things like this happening.”
“We are located on a river,” Dillon said. “It’s like people that live on the coast. You have hurricanes that come that are out of your control. … You still don’t avoid that area.”
Located west of the Tombigbee River, the amphitheater was originally expected to be open for free public events this summer in time for the Market Street Festival concert. The flooding in the past few days, however, added uncertainty as to when the project would reach completion, Dillon said.
“(The water) is back over the stage,” he said. “Even if it’s not raining today, the ground is so wet, they can’t get footing for the concrete and everything until it dries out.”
Dillon said the amphitheater should not suffer any damage other than mud and silt stacked up on the stage, which the city can wash off once the water recedes.
The electric panels installed on stage could be damaged, Dillon said, but they were to be replaced regardless. The construction crew had held off the installation process due to the possibility of flooding and will wait until the high water is gone, he said.
Dillon added water at Propst Park on the other end of Main Street appeared to be receding as of 4 p.m. on Thursday. No permanent damage is expected, he said.
Roger Short, director of Lowndes County Parks and Recreation Department, said the county had just finished repairing part of the damage to the soccer complex caused by the last flood.
For the six or seven years since the complex was built, he said, floods rarely reached the site.
“This is really unprecedented, what we’re seeing,” Short said.
Columbus Light and Water cut electricity per the county’s request before the floods reached the site, and county officials rescued the irrigation system controllers, Short said. He will assess the damage to the irrigation system and the water well once the water recedes.
“There’s really nothing (else) that we can do,” Short said.
Floods also cut off parts of the county roads, and 16 closed as of Thursday morning, including Lincoln and Spurlock roads in Columbus and Waverly Road in West Point, county Road Manager Ronnie Burns said. His department was able to reopen some of the roads by Thursday afternoon, he said.
“It concerns me on the roads,” Burns said. “It takes a lot to go back to fix the roads once they get torn up.”
Road crews try to prepare with chainsaws and barricades for high waters when a storm hits, Burns said. Faced with future possibilities of natural disasters like the flooding, he said it’s important to keep the roads patched and the shoulders fixed at all times.
The scale of this year’s flooding is almost as big as the one from last year, Lowndes County EMS Director Cindy Lawrence said.
As of Thursday, Lawrence said, the water level of the Tombigbee River rose to 166 feet. Last year, she said, that number was 167.
“I’ve been there for 22 years,” Lawrence said. “And I’ve never seen (anything like this) where you have the same back-to-back incident.”
Tommy Jones said before last year, the last the time there was flooding this bad was 28 years ago.
“Last year, we were hoping this was the 28-year period, and now we’re dealing with this again,” he said. “We have routine ups and downs and inconveniences but this is pretty major.”
As of this morning, Kay said, the water had risen a little bit more, now completely immersing the table on her and Tommy’s deck.
“We’re treading water, but otherwise we’re fine,” she said. “It’s come up some more.”
Tommy said several neighbors had paddled by on Thursday offering to pick up anything the Joneses needed from town and take it back to them.
“It’s kind of a close-knit (community),” he said. “When people need stuff, it’s there. I’m not concerned. … I’ve got people I can call to bring in stuff to me if I need to. They’re just great. Just everybody takes care of everybody out there.”
Despite the flooding, neither the Joneses nor the Millers plan to go anywhere — even if this happens again next year.
“I can’t say I’m worried about, but you just never know,” Jones said. “… I’ve been out here forever, most of my life, and every time I think I know what this river’s going to do, it puts me back in my place.”