Howard Jones' family has been in the lumber business in Natchez, Mississippi, a charming town on the eastern banks of the mighty Mississippi River, for five generations. Now the swollen river was threatening to sweep away their operation and the family’s legacy.
Jones was covered in sweat and dirt, and after about 10 minutes, I was too. The JM Jones Lumber Co. is a dry, dusty place to work. Fine, powdery sand constantly sloughs off the bluff above it, wafting its way down into the yard where it mixes with sawdust. My boots and pant legs, our vehicles and equipment, were coated in it. Odd really, as there has never been so much water so close.
Just three weeks ago, Jones received warning that the river would go to 60 feet or higher. The lumber yard is right on the banks - well below the bluff above it that serves as a natural levee - so they were forced to suspend operations and go into the levee building business.
“We haven’t run our saw mill in about two weeks,” said Jones. “It’s been just levee construction and levee maintenance.”
It was a little eerie walking down the hill into the lumberyard on Wednesday. No sounds of sawing. Palettes were empty. Staging areas were barren. Most of the employees were up on the levee – all wearing life jackets – shoring up the levee.
“Last night, two big tugs came by late - northbound tugs, barges - and they just created a tremendous wave wash,” Jones said.
Just north of the yard is the Highway 84 bridge that connects Natchez to Vidalia, Louisiana. Whenever a northbound barge clears that bridge, wave wash starts pounding on Jones’ levee. The Coast Guard had spotters here on Wednesday and Thursday, watching each one pass and monitoring the size of the wakes.
“What happens is, not only do we have parts of our levee fall away, but it rips this heavy-gauge Visqueen (a type of heavy plastic sheeting). Under here is five feet of fresh dirt," he said. "And when that plastic is ripped, and the waves are coming into it, it’s washing the dirt away and turning it into mud.”
The levee was high enough, for now, but the big question is whether it was strong enough to hold?