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Vicksburg marks anniversary of historical river crest

VICKSBURG – It was a period of numerical reflection Friday morning here on the banks of the Mississippi River.

It was exactly one year ago that the Mississippi crested at 57.1 feet, breaking the record set in 1927 (56.2 feet) and cementing the 2011 flood as modern history’s highwater mark.

Just west of the flood wall, where city and federal officials held a ceremony marking the one-year anniversary of the crest, the water flowed at 26 feet, some 30 feet lower than it was one year ago.

“What a difference one year can make,” said Col. Jeffrey Eckstein of the Vicksburg District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Eckstein estimated the Mississippi River and Tributaries system, the seven-state network of mainline and backwater levees, prevented $110 billion worth of damage as it held back last year’s flood waters that submerged nearly 10 million acres. Since it was completed in the late 1920s, Eckstein said, the MR&T has prevented $490 billion in damage as annual springtime floods came and went.

Total investment in the MR&T in that period, Eckstein said, is $14 billion.

That amount grew last December by $802 million when Congress appropriated funds for repair to the MR&T.

Peter Nimrod, chief engineer of the Corps at Vicksburg, said the primary problem areas in Mississippi were sandboils at Buck Chute near Eagle Lake and the backwater levee in the South Delta, which required buttressing before flood waters came within four inches of overtopping it.

“This was the first real test for the MR&T, and it passed with flying colors,” Nimrod said.  Of the 12 total problem areas, he added, 11 will have permanent solutions in place by 2014.

Thirty-five miles of mainline levee still need raising, as does portions of the backwater levee, which is especially critical because it risks decertification if not. That would mean stagnate construction along the berm, according to economic development groups in the Delta.

Bill Seratt, executive director of the Vicksburg Convention and Visitors Bureau, said tourism numbers this year compared to last are “off the charts,” but there was one small caveat: Those figures were somewhat skewed by the months-long maintenance and repair of neighboring Claiborne County’s Entergy Grand Gulf Nuclear Station. At least some of the 3,000 or so workers brought in to work on the plant were staying in hotels in Vicksburg. “We’re still handing over the biggest (sales) tax checks we’ve ever given to the city, but Grand Gulf is responsible for at least some of that, though we’re not sure exactly how much.”

What is indisputable, Seratt said, is that large groups aren’t cancelling events like they did last year.  “After the crest last year, it was almost like a magic act,” Seratt said. “Poof, everybody who had come to witness history was gone, and they didn’t come back. And the people who didn’t come to see history were scared to death by the national media because they made it sound like the whole town was underwater. We begged them to show shots from the bluff. They didn’t, and we suffered.”

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