Editor’s Note: This story was produced for the Southeast Sustainability Director’s Network and is republished with permission.
When many people think of climate change-related flooding, they often think in terms of sea level rise in larger coastal areas. But inland small towns and rural areas are feeling the very real effects of stronger storms and intense rainfall. This includes the tiny town of Duck Hill, Mississippi, with a population of roughly 1,300.
In small rural towns like this one, streets and open ditches often serve as conduits for runoff during heavy rains. Storm drains are rarely installed, or are in very poor condition. As a result, an African-American neighborhood along Duck Hill’s main street has regularly flooded, with water as high as 15 inches that stayed at that level for hours, if not days, seeping into homes and a former high school gym that now serves as a community center. The flooding has not only threatened buildings — it also has added regularly to the economic burden and a loss of hope that has plagued many of the town’s low-income residents.
“Our church is right next door to the gym and when it rained it would be like a river,” says lifelong resident Shernell Everett. “I remember several times in one month the water got so high, it was actually inside of my car. You could feel the water on the floor trying to creep through there. It was just so bad!”
But in 2017, Duck Hill residents and outside partners recognized an opportunity to not only stem the flood waters, but to revitalize the community. With encouragement from community organizer and consultant Romona Williams, the community began to explore the possibility of becoming more resilient and sustainable – environmentally, economically and socially. A local steering committee identified four areas of focus: flood water mitigation and creek restoration, community engagement and empowerment, youth conservationist training, and creative place making. The group received $300,000 in funding from the Southeast Sustainable Communities Fund (SSCF), a project of the Southeastern Sustainability Director’s Network (SSDN), The Kendeda Fund, and The Kresge Foundation.
To help address the flooding issue, Williams engaged her husband, Bobby, (known to community by his performance brand, Abba Goel), who has years of experience working in waterproofing, storm water drainage systems and green infrastructure in other parts of the country. They consulted with town engineer Joe Sutherland, Professor David Perkes of Mississippi State University College of Architecture, Art + Design, and SSDN technical assistant consultant, Suzanne Burnes, to design the best solution for fixing the drainage problems. Goel designed a training module and hired four local men who had been chronically unemployed and trained them in the storm water infrastructure aspects of green technology. Given the severity of the flooding, the team settled on a dual “grey” and “green” installation comprised of bioswales, perforated pipes, biodegradable fabric, rock and gravel, and rain gardens that could absorb and filter thousands of gallons of rainwater before syphoning it into one of the larger paved drainage ditches for a more controlled flow out of town.
“I was very skeptical of the whole idea at first, because what it does, initially, is slow down the rate of flow of the water,” admits town engineer Joe Sutherland. “But they seem to work very well. But the system makes up for in volume what we needed to have in flow and velocity. So, I’ve been very well pleased, especially in these recent heavy rains.”
Flood mitigation is what you see on the surface in Duck Hill, but the tides of change in the community began well before the physical work, and are continuing to swell.
In February 2018, the community launched Achieving Sustainability through Education and Economic Development Solutions (ASEEDS), to oversee efforts to improve green infrastructure, engage in adaptation and resiliency planning and training, and examine the feasibility of restoring the high school into a community center using creative place making principles and techniques. More than 100 people turned up for the ASEEDS launch. By some accounts, it was the first time that many of the white residents of Duck Hill had ventured into the black side of town since the high school closed, and the first time the two communities had intentionally worked together on anything in decades.
As former classmates at Binford High School in the 1970s, Shernell Everett and Melba Rogers recognized their shared bonds and affection for the historic high school building were feelings that others in town likely shared — and that the high school could be a focal point for community unification and racial reconciliation. They began to focus on rallying the community, black and white, around the idea of sustainability, with the high school at the center. From there, the ideas and activities have grown. Landscape architects and engineers from Mississippi State University provide guidance for planning, training, developing green infrastructure and for creating rain gardens and community green spaces. EcoAdapt, a national climate change organization, created a preliminary “Climate Change 101” workshop and a toolkit about the different elements of climate change and adaptation, and is gathering data to create a climate adaptation and resiliency plan.
Community members are stepping up as well. Area Master Gardeners teach organic gardening classes. Pastors from across the region have joined in a strategic, ongoing dialogue about climate change. And a local teacher leads middle and high school youth in the Creek Rangers program, which teaches them how to monitor and protect healthy natural waterways that contribute to overall green infrastructure for Duck Hill.
“We are a striving community that really wants to heal and I think people really want to come together,” Everett says. “There are a lot of good people in Duck Hill, black and white — people who are willing to help. The main thing is, I want my community to come together.”
Betsey Russell is a writer and philanthropy consultant. She is the author of the novel Other People’s Money, which she describes as a “philanthropic thriller.”