Turkey Creek flooding brings out lingering disputes in Gulfport

Rising Turkey Creek threatening a North Gulfport Church

GULFPORT, Miss. (WLOX) - It’s a familiar problem for Forrest Heights Missionary Baptist Church. Rising water from Turkey Creek threatening to flood the church.

“If it rains like it did last night, we’re probably going to get flooded on the inside of the church,” said Deacon Kenneth Taylor on Thursday.

The church keeps a supply of sandbags on hand for just this situation.

“It’s already up to us now and it’s supposed to rain,” Taylor said. “I’m thinking it’s supposed to rain some more tonight and tomorrow. So we’re just on standby here. The city is supposed to be bringing us some more sand bags we’re going to try to put out around the doors.”

With heavy rains like the Gulf Coast has seen in the last few days, there is little else the church can do. Meanwhile, city crews cleared debris from the creek and pumped water from one area to another.

Residents said part of the problem is a program by the Land Trust for the Mississippi Coastal Plain to rid the area of invasive plant species. Some said the program has done more harm than good.

“Since they cut the trees down, that’s when the water started to getting high,” Taylor said. “When we get these high inflections of rain. So with the rain that we’ve had the last couple of days, the creek is just overflowing, there’s nothing to stop the water because they done took out all the trees.”

Land Trust Director Dawn Haight disputed that assertion and defended the project that is part of a plan conceived in 2006 to enhance the 17,000-acre flood plain and make it more accessible.

Previous efforts to keep the creek clear of debris have been successful, but inconsistent. A $15.4 million project to build a levy between Turkey Creek and the Forest Heights neighborhood was announced in January, but that work has not begun.

Now activists and residents are focusing their concern that the proposed new roads north of the creek, called the BUILD Grant program, will increase run-off and make the flooding worse.

Leading the criticism of the project is Gulfport Ward 3 Councilwoman Ella Holmes-Hines who has been monitoring the creek all day.

“So it’s all over the area that is the tributary area of Turkey Creek,” said Holmes-Hines. “No one can fix this with one (solution). But I know one thing we can do. It’s to stop the building until we address this problem.”

The dispute between Holmes-Hines and other activists and Gulfport Mayor Billy Hewes was exacerbated by a report issued this week naming Turkey Creek as one of America’s Most Endangered Rivers of 2021. Mayor Hewes responded to the report with a letter calling it “an outside group plays to stereotype and uses a term ill-suited to the character and conduct of our city in an attempt to sensationalize an issue.”

Hewes’ letter stated that the designation came about from “BUILD Grant opponents shopping the issue with as many regulatory and environmental groups who would listen “although the report does not mention the project.”

Ruth Story, Executive Director of Education, Economics, Environmental, Climate and Health Organization (EEECHO) said Thursday that all they want to do is protect the communities and natural resources.

Her group and the Gulfport Section of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) sent a letter on Feb. 8 to the mayor asking for a meeting on the issue. They wanted to discuss the impact the proposed roads linking Airport and Creosote Roads with development north of I-10 would have on the Turkey Creek floodplain.

They said the letter was never answered.

“We just want to work with the city, work with people of the community so that we come out with a good resolution,” Story said.

In the meantime, the Church deacon can only wait and watch.

“We’ll just pray to the Lord,” Taylor said. “If it’s our time, if it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen.”

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