Mississippi residents return to their flood-damaged homes

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

CUTOFF, Miss. -- Javier Campos returned to his neighborhood for the first time in nearly a month Monday to find the serene little enclave of fishing camps and homes a putrid, mud-caked mess after the historic flooding of the Mississippi River.

"It's too late for praying now," he said, stomping through the sludge.

Like Campos, many residents got their first glimpse Monday of what's left of Cutoff, an unincorporated community on the unprotected side of the river in Mississippi's Tunica County.

Authorities had already used machinery to remove dead deer and propane tanks from roads, but a thick layer of mud coated piles of debris and almost everything else in sight. Some of the houses, most built on stilts on the banks of Tunica Lake, had been flooded nearly to their attics. Only five out of 350 structures didn't flood.

The tally of the damage continues here, but at least a dozen houses are a total loss, and maybe more, with one left laying on its side.

Inspectors let some residents return home over the weekend, but most were seeing the destruction Monday for the first time.

Campos, a 32-year-old handyman, still couldn't quite get to his own home. So he pulled on a pair of gloves and started helping a neighbor salvage what he could.

"It's terrible, man. Everybody needs help," Campos said. "So I'm helping my neighbors, and when I can get back to my house, maybe they will help me."

Despite the devastation, Tunica County planning director Pepper Bradford said opening the last sections of the community Monday was a milestone for the roughly 225 households that are permanent residences in a series of fishing camps. But, he said, danger is lurking.

"My building inspectors are packing heat," Bradford said. "And they have shot some snakes."

The Mississippi River displaced thousands on its march to the sea, despite dramatic action to stem the losses. The rising waters led the Army Corps of Engineers to blow up a Missouri levee to save Midwest communities and open spillways in Louisiana to lessen the risk in heavily populated places like New Orleans.

Places like Cutoff may never be the same. The community sprang from fishing camps that date back decades. It was a place where each of the four camps had a bar and grill, and most people traveled on golf carts. Most of the homes here had been built before new federal and county regulations. If they are substantially damaged, they'll have to be elevated, which will cost too much for many residents.

Scenes like this could play out repeatedly in the coming weeks. Water from the river is expected to remain high into the summer in some places, including downriver in Vicksburg, Miss., where hundreds of people are still displaced.

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