Angie Beatty has had many of her belongings from her garage stacked on her second-story patio for five days.
The Owens Drive resident lives in a house on stilts just across the road from the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway in southern Lowndes County, where she and her neighbors have had floods for the last three years. With heavy rains north of Columbus this past week, the water levels have been rising, and Owens Drive residents spent last week securing items from the lower levels of their homes, moving tractors and other equipment to storage and putting their pets in kennels in case the rains cause another flood.
Still, when Beatty went to bed Friday night, she thought the river had crested and she and her neighbors were out of the woods.
That was before a barge broke loose from its moorings at the mouth of the Luxapallila Creek and floated down the waterway where it became stuck at the Tom Bevill Lock and Dam in Aliceville, Alabama, at about 3 a.m. Saturday, said Kellis Higginbotham, lock supervisor at Stennis Lock and Dam in Columbus.
The barge restricted flow from two of Tom Bevill’s four gates, causing water levels along the waterway to rise between Bevill and Stennis, Higginbotham said. As of about 3 p.m. Saturday, the water was 141.63 feet above sea level — more than five feet higher than the more typical 136 feet — and still rising, albeit slower than that morning.
“We were already building (water level) before the barge got here, but once the barge struck the dam and partially sunk, it’s restricting flow in two of the four gates,” he said.
Lowndes County Emergency Management Agency and other local emergency services received a call from the lock operators Saturday morning, by which time many residents were already preparing for their properties to flood.
“We would have been fine and nobody would have had an issue, and then this barge,” Beatty said Saturday morning, as water crept up her driveway and pooled in parts of her front and side yard.
As of 6 p.m. Saturday, the water level was 141.86 feet, Higginbotham said. Waterway managers expect the waterway to crest at 1 p.m. today at 142.9 feet.
He added residents can keep track of the water levels and crest predictions on the National Weather Service website at https://water.weather.gov/ahps2/hydrograph.php?wfo=meg&gage=abem6.
LCEMA alerted media Saturday morning and sent some first responders, including Lowndes County Volunteer Fire Coordinator Neal Austin, to warn residents about the rising water levels. Though several residents said they wish EMA had been to their area earlier, Austin reported emergency services had not had to rescue any residents from already-flooded homes.
“I do know that there were a lot of neighbors helping neighbors move stuff to higher ground, in case of (flooding),” Austin said. “That’s been going on all day today, just preparations, so I’m hoping that we got the word quick enough that they were able to make some provisions.”
That was certainly the case in the neighborhood near August Boat Landing, where residents milled around securing equipment and driving golf carts around to check on neighbors. Riverside Drive resident James Howard helped his neighbor Bonnie Peterson by tying her propane tank to a tree, since the tank “floated” during the last flood in February 2020, Peterson said.
“We (could) be here about four days,” Peterson said at about noon on Saturday, anticipating the water will cover the road and keep residents from leaving their homes.
Lowndes County EMA Director Cindy Lawrence said authorities have to wait for the water levels to go down before removing the barge, and Higginbotham said both Stennis and Bevill locks “are passing as much water as we can” through the waterway.
Even as they prepared for flooding, Beatty, Peterson and other residents said they didn’t plan to evacuate.
“I fished off my porch last year (when it flooded),” Peterson said. “So did James. He caught a catfish but couldn’t reel it in over his deck.”
Howard nodded in agreement.
“I’m going to put up a line this year,” he said.
But Joe and Dianne Holman, who have one of the lowest houses in the neighborhood, said they may be ready to find a hotel if the water gets too high. Dianne works at a doctor’s office and has to be able to get to her job.
“We took off work early yesterday to come get our stuff,” Joe said. “We’ve been through it before.”
Flooding in Columbus
Saturday’s flooding came at the end of three days of flooding in parts of Lowndes County, with roads in the Steens area and North Columbus flooding on Thursday night and Friday. Columbus firefighters had to aid a handful stranded motorists on Wilkins Wise Road who were caught by rising flood waters Thursday night. However, no homes had to be evacuated.
Also closed off was Plymouth Road in Columbus, which has historically had flooding problems after a tornado/flooding event in 2019 washed out a 10-foot section of the road at the bridge where it crosses Moore’s Creek. In March of this year, Phillips Construction employees replaced the road’s broken 45-inch culvert pipe with a new 60-inch pipe. However, City Engineer Kevin Stafford said, even the new culvert can’t do much if there are multiple days of rain north of the city, as there were last week.
“When that happens, we can’t do anything until the flooding goes down,” he said.
Columbus also saw flooding at the Stennis Lock and Dam, Propst Park and parts of the Riverwalk downtown — all areas in floodplains and which the city designed as recreation areas knowing they would flood sometimes, Stafford said. He added employees from Columbus Light and Water had been out at the Riverwalk cutting water and power and making sure to secure any equipment that could be damaged by floods before the waters rose.
If a recreation area floods, it just means residents can’t use that park for a few days, Stafford said. If a building or development floods, it’s a bigger problem.
“You don’t want to put a Walmart in a floodplain, in other words,” he said.