River up, but businesses open

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Published: April 21,2008

Not all of Vicksburg is underwater, and not all of its businesses and attractions are closed.

Casino and economic development officials from the Bluff City would like you to know that, despite media reports to the contrary, the Mississippi River hasn’t swallowed it whole.

“Oh, yes we are,” said Ameristar Casino and Hotel’s PR manager Bess Averett, responding to a reporter’s asking if the place was up and running. “That has been our biggest issue, to get the word out that we are open. I get eight to 10 e-mails a day about it.”

Averett’s dilemma is one shared at the Vicksburg-Warren County Chamber of Commerce. After all, the annual Riverfest was this past weekend, and the chamber had been flooded — with phone calls asking if the annual festival was still on, not with water from the Big Muddy.

“Ninety percent of the city is not affected (by rising waters),” chamber executive director Christi Kilroy said Tuesday, referring to the area’s vast bluffs on which most homes and businesses sit. “We’re fighting the media coverage. We’re not completely shut down. Riverfest is going ahead.”

Kilroy said she’s received calls from as far away as New Jersey and California from concerned folks who, after seeing reports of the flood on national media outlets, ask her if she and family are all right. “I appreciate people taking it seriously, but it’s killing our tourism.”

Kim Tullos, who serves as general manager of DiamondJacks Casino, has more local concerns about media coverage, including a popular metro-area traffic news reporter.
“We’re fighting Chopper Bob flying over and saying everything is flooded,” Tullos said. “We’ve dealt with high water before. You can’t live on the water and not have to deal with it. But for us it’s all about public safety and the safety of our staff.”

At press time, the Army Corps of Engineers was scheduling the river to crest April 19 at 51 feet, eight feet above flood stage. Water officially reached flood level March 29, fed by heavy rains in Missouri and Arkansas that formed a wall of water that eventually moved south. If the 51-foot mark becomes a reality, it will be the highest the river has been since the flood of 1973, which had a high-water mark of 51.6 feet. The Corps has said the water, after its crest, would take weeks to recede.

Tullos said the projected crest is not high enough to force DiamondJacks to close, adding that a water level of closer to 60 feet would make it impossible to operate. Vicksburg’s casinos sit on barges that rise and fall with the water levels. The only flooding issue they would have is the possibility of areas like parking lots taking on water. Even then, Tullos says, the design of the ancillary areas prepares them for floods.

“But I’m not going to have water in my casino,” she said.

While most of Vicksburg’s main attractions — the casinos and their hotels, the Civil War park — one business that has partially closed is LeTourneau Technologies, a company that designs and manufacturers offshore drilling equipment.

The company’s access road is underwater. Of its 1,300-member work force, only 160 remain on the job, mainly those who work on the river and at the high-ground shipyard.

LeTourneau’s coordinator of service logistics Ronnie Neihaus was born and raised in Vicksburg, and calls this year’s flood “comparable” to the one in 1973, which also forced LeTourneau to stop operating.

“This one’s had a huge impact on us,” Neihaus said. Neihaus could not put a dollar amount on what the flood would eventually cost his company.

The company stopped full operations April 8. As for when LeTourneau would be back to full strength, Neihaus said it’s a guessing game.

“We’ve got to get county approval before we can use our access road again, and that will all depend on how fast the water goes down. And even then, we won’t be fully operational immediately. It will be a piecemeal kind of thing.”

Contact MBJ staff writer Clay Chandler at clay.chandler@ msbusiness.com .

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