FLOWOOD, Miss. (AP) — Pearl River's waters flooded parts of Jackson and surrounding areas in 1979 in a deluge that paralyzed the city and led to the evacuation of 15,000 people.
Now, 35 years later, the river is making a return visit. At the 34-foot stage, water has done little more than flood wooded areas, compared with the 43-foot crest of 1979. But with the swollen Pearl climbing again Monday after heavy rain overnight, it's a reminder that despite decades of study, little has been done to protect Mississippi's largest urban area.
The Easter flood caused more than $500 million in damage — $1.3 billion in today's dollars. But damage from an equivalent flood could be even more costly, because the Rankin County side of the river has sprouted hospitals, office buildings and shopping centers in the ensuing decades. In Jackson, the city built the $65 million Jackson Convention Complex atop Town Creek, which backed up with floodwater in 1979, cutting off parts of the city's business district.
Since the flood, three different plans have been considered and rejected.
"It's not like there hasn't been anything going for 35 years," said Greg Raimondo, a spokesman for the Vicksburg District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. "It's just the local interests both in Jackson and upstream and downstream haven't been able to come to any agreement on how to manage this water."
Now, local officials are looking at a fourth plan, which would develop a lake near downtown Jackson.
"We're getting close," said Dallas Quinn of the Pearl River Vision Foundation. "This is the closest we've been in a long, long time."
The foundation is a private group that's conducting a $2 million engineering and environmental study, with the backing of the Rankin-Hinds Pearl River Flood and Drainage Control District. That levee district operates levees and pumps that provide partial protection from flooding. The study money comes from a variety of sources, including $1 million from the Mississippi Development Authority.
Quinn said a draft is supposed to be completed in June. After comments by the public and government agencies, leaders hope to finalize the study by year's end.
Even if everyone reaches agreement, a funding source would still have to be identified for the work.
Initially, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposed to build a dry lake north of the current Ross Barnett Reservoir that would only fill during floods. But local landowners objected to the plan for the Shoccoe Dry Dam, and the state House of Representatives defeated a bill in 1987 to allow a state agency to sponsor it. That was followed by proposals by the Corps of Engineers to build 21 miles of levee systems in 1996 and 2007. Some residents feared they could shift flooding downstream.
By then, Jackson oilman John McGowan was promoting a plan to build two lakes, with islands that could be developed.
Monday, McGowan repeated his longstanding argument that flood control on the Pearl will only make financial sense with an economic boost.
"Development is needed to make it all work," he said.
But the Corps of Engineers rejected the two-lake plan, saying it wasn't economically justified or environmentally sound. Lake advocates moved on to a plan with just one lake. There's little opposition to it around Jackson. However, residents near the Pearl's mouth in St. Tammany Parish, La., have said they're worried the dam will cut water flows, damaging wetlands and wildlife. In September, the St. Tammany Parish Council passed a resolution opposing the dam proposal.
"We've been consistent about trying to get them to look downstream," said Andrew Whitehurst of the Gulf Restoration Network. Whitehurst said the environmental group would prefer levees, or "anything that keeps the river as a river and doesn't turn it into a second lake."