Devastating floods led this Mississippi farmer to a political awakening
2019 Mississippi floods covered an area three and a half times the size of Toronto
This story is part of The Current's series Road to November, a virtual trip down the Mississippi River from Minnesota to Louisiana, to meet some of the people whose lives will be shaped by the 2020 U.S. presidential election.
A farmer heavily affected by the 2019 "forgotten floods" of the Mississippi Delta says the experience has left her more politically engaged, and ready to fight for the means to protect her community.
"Until the flood... I went out and voted and made my choice every year. But I didn't watch the news, I didn't go the extra mile to be super engaged," said Victoria Darden, 28, who runs a 445-hectare farm about 15 minutes from the town of Rolling Fork, Miss.
"But now that I see how that affects daily life here, I've had to kind of change things," she told The Current's Matt Galloway.
Floodwaters submerged 221,000 hectares of the lower Mississippi Delta last year, an area three and a half times the size of Toronto. The waters began to rise as winter melted into spring, but receded slowly, keeping much of the land flooded through the summer. Houses and highways stayed underwater, and a man and pregnant woman drowned. (At least 12 people are thought to have died in the flooding that affected the wider Mississippi basin). Locals, who felt the crisis was being ignored by both the federal government and the U.S. media, dubbed their plight the forgotten floods.
The floods were in part driven by record rainfall, as some scientists warn climate change could be causing bouts of heavier rainfall. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration cited 2019 as the second wettest year on record in the U.S., and estimated that flooding along the length of the Mississippi cost $20 billion US in damages.
Flanked by a creek to one side, and a bayou in front, Darden's own home was quickly surrounded, creating "essentially just an island," she said. While her mother moved to safety in town, she and her father stayed to protect their property, travelling to and from the house by boat.
Almost half the affected land belonged to farmers. Darden's family usually plants soybean and corn, but like the majority of their neighbours, they were unable to plant or cultivate crops for the entire year. The cost to the area's agriculture sector has been estimated at $800 million US.
"A whole year without any kind of income, it's not good. It's not good for a farm, it's not good for people. It was more than devastating," she said.
2020 brought more flooding, coupled with the pressures of the pandemic. Darden said while it hasn't been quite as severe, they are still about a month behind in harvesting what crops they have been able to plant.
As the waters receded, her political engagement increased. Since January, she has been her county's correspondent for the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce, communicating farmers' concerns and needs to the department.
She also became involved with a local group, Finish the Pumps, working to have a hydraulic pumping system installed in the region. Proposals for the system date back decades, but Darden said it wasn't until the "unprecedented" 2019 floods that local support for them swelled, as well as the feeling that the pumps could have stopped much of the damage.
"It had never been comprehended that we were going to flood half a million acres, and that our whole livelihoods would be just uprooted in a blink of an eye," she said.
Serving food, and compassion
Darden says the losses of 2019 still weighs heavily on her community, as well as the fear that it could happen again.
"Every time it rains around here, we all have a little bit of PTSD about it," she said.
"[Whether] the equation is there to flood or not doesn't matter, we're still scared of it."
At Chuck's Dairy Bar in Rolling Fork, Tracy Harden says she's seen the impact on farmers like Darden firsthand.
"My heart would break for her and her dad, with the boating into home and boating out to get what they need, and not being able to plant," she told Galloway.
Harden has owned the restaurant with her husband for 14 years. While the flooding and pandemic has put financial pressure on her own business, she tries to put those fears on the back burner, because she feels the farmers "are hurting the most."
"We are here to not only serve them food, we are here to serve them love, care, compassion," she said.
Campaign for pumping system
In normal conditions, the low-lying region around Rolling Fork drains south through a system of levees, eventually flowing through floodgates — called the Steele Bayou Control Structure — to join the Mississippi River near Vicksburg, Miss.
However, when the Mississippi itself is high, those gates are closed to stop the river water flooding back into the part of the Delta where Rolling Fork sits.
When the system was designed, a hydraulic pumping system was proposed to drain water from the Delta when the Steele Bayou was closed.
That was in 1941.
What followed was decades of political wrangling over both the cost of the project, and who was responsible for paying it. In 2008, the hydraulic pumps were finally vetoed by the Environmental Protection Agency under President George W. Bush. The decision was influenced by a 27,000-strong letter-writing campaign from environmentalists who argued the pumps would have damaging effects on local wildlife.
After lobbying from Darden's group, the EPA now says it will review that 2008 decision.
On Oct. 16, an environmental impact study from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers voiced support for the proposal, but conservation groups still oppose its construction.
They argue the pumps would not provide adequate protection from flooding, but would instead destroy up to 81,000 hectacres of wetland habitat.
"Eighty per cent of project benefits would be for agriculture by draining tens of thousands of acres of wetlands to intensify farming," said Louie Miller, of the Mississippi Sierra Club, in a statement.
"The Yazoo Pumps are a cruel hoax on the citizens of the Mississippi Delta, sold as a panacea for flooding when in fact it will only enrich a select few," he said.
Darden said that people concerned about protecting animal habitats should look to 2019 and "the amount of wildlife that's been devastated, among people's lives as well," she said.
She wants the EPA and federal government to build the pumps, and "support us and recognize that we need help, and we're in a problem situation."
Trade war and payouts
U.S. farmers have faced uncertainty in recent years, as the Trump administration's trade war with China resulted in tariffs and purchasing halts on corn, soy and pork. U.S. farm sales to China fell from $19.5 billion US in 2017 to just $9 billion US the next year.
At the final presidential debate on Oct. 22, Republican candidate Donald Trump claimed he "just gave $28 billion to our farmers," and that the money had come from China.
His opponent, Democrat candidate Joe Biden, argued this was "taxpayer's money — didn't come from China."
However, the Trump administration has used that revenue to help farmers weather the trade war with direct aid, with Politico reporting in July that the bailouts had risen from $11.5 billion US in 2017 to more than $32 billion US in the first half of 2020. Farmers have also received more than $10 billion US in aid related to the pandemic.
For Darden, Trump's initial appeal lay in his not being a professional politician, but now she sees him as supporting "the blue-collar workers that really get out there and do manual labour and try and keep things going."
"I cannot recall someone being more of an advocate for farmers and supporting the people who help develop this country, and run this country," she said.
Trump's 2020 campaign has eschewed a formal policy platform, instead opting for a bullet-point list of promises. Promises include the creation of 10 million jobs, support for new small businesses, and trade deals that protect U.S. jobs, but does not include specifics about rural areas.
Biden's platform promises to create jobs in rural areas, as well as supporting the small businesses in small towns. He also pledges to invest in rural broadband, schools and public colleges, and enact middle class tax cuts.
Election has been 'difficult'
According to the CBC Presidential Poll Tracker, Trump leads in Mississippi as of Friday morning, with 55.5 per cent against Biden's 42.3 per cent.
In 2016, Trump won the state's six electoral college votes with 57.9 per cent of the ballot, ahead of Hillary Clinton's 40.1 per cent.
With tensions running high ahead of Tuesday's vote, Harden said she can see political divisions playing out over coffee every day in her restaurant.
"Everybody has their opinion of who's right and who's wrong… some days it just kind of hard to deal with," she said.
"We have a whole lot more going on in this world that we need to be taking care of."
She remembers "when elections were not this difficult."
"We have a lot of people arguing about it that won't even get out and go vote. Go vote, make your choice, and that way, you're helping," she said.
Fearful of alienating customers, she said she tries to keep her opinions to herself, because "you have to think of the business standpoint as well."
She said that whatever happens on election day, she prays it's not followed by "too much turmoil."
"I've always been the type that whether the president is one that I chose or not, he's still my president," she said.
"He will be my president. And I pray for him that he does the right thing for our country."
Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Ben Jamieson.
- An earlier version of this article stated that 12 people died in the lower Delta during the 2019 floods. In fact, that was the death toll for the entire Mississippi Basin. In the lower Delta, the confirmed deaths were a man and pregnant woman.Nov 02, 2020 9:23 AM ET