GUEST ARTICLE: Tired of constant flooding, tiny Duck Hill, Mississippi revitalized their community by making it more resilient

The Guest Article for REVITALIZATION was written by Betsey Russell.

Almost every time it rained, Main Street in Duck Hill, Mississippi flooded. The water regularly rose as high as 15 inches, and stayed at that level for hours and sometimes days before receding. It made the roads impassable and repeatedly flooded area homes.

It also flooded the community recreation center housed in the gym of the town’s historic former Binford High School. But flooding can’t wash away community pride and innovation.

The center of Duck Hill. Photo via Google Maps.

Once the focal point of this small town, the high school is now the central focus of a new effort to springboard community and economic development.

A few years ago, the town leaders proposed demolishing the building, but former high school classmates Melba Rogers, Shernell Everett and other alumni saw a chance to make their town more resilient and create a healthy, livable and thriving town – both in terms of climate and community. But first and foremost, they need to address the flooding issue.

When many people think of climate change-related flooding and the need for adaptation, resiliency and sustainability, 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, with a population of roughly 1300. In this rural community, flooding from storm water runoff has not only threatened homes and other 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.

Duck Hill On The Rise

ASEEDS Initiative team gather at community meeting in Duck Hill.

In 2017, things changed for Duck Hill when, some 120 miles further south in Jackson, an opportunity for investment from the Southeast Sustainable Communities Fund (SSCF) came across the desk of Romona Taylor Williams, then Director of Communications and Development for Southern Echo, a social justice advocacy and public policy organization.

SSCF is a project of the Southeastern Sustainability Director’s Network (SSDN), the Kendeda Fund, and the Kresge Foundation. Williams instantly recognized the connection between environmental and social justice and sustainability, knowing that marginalized communities most frequently suffer the impacts of climate change. She worked with Southern Echo’s board chair, Al White, to find a community in Mississippi that might make the most of the SSCF opportunity. As it turned out, it was White’s hometown of Duck Hill.

White invited Williams for a site visit of the community and to meet with residents and town leaders. Together, they formed a team consisting of Mayor Joey Cooley, Joe Sutherland, the town’s contracted engineer, White, Shernell Everett and Melba Rogers.

The team then formed a steering committee to obtain broader community input, review empirical data sets, and ultimately identify four areas of focus: flood water mitigation and creek restoration, community engagement and empowerment, youth conservationist training, and creative place making. SSCF awarded the Duck Hill team $300,000 to support its efforts.

Stemming a Rising Tide

Duck Hill residents discuss resilience and climate change at community meeting.

In small rural towns like Duck Hill, storm water infrastructure is rarely present. Instead, streets and open ditches serve as conduits for runoff during heavy rains. Storm drains are rarely installed, or often are in very poor condition.

We’ve done a good job with our water and our sewer, but our streets and our storm water drainage is still suffering,” says Sutherland. “In the 1980s we received grants to pave ditches to handle storm water runoff. But what that really did was accelerate the rate of flow of the storm water to areas that hadn’t been repaired or improved.”

The result? Repeated flooding, often as high as 15 inches in Duck Hill’s Main Street area, and particularly around the community gym and the former Binford High School.

Our church is right next door to the gym and when it rained it would be like a river,” says 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!

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 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.

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. The filtered storm water eventually empties into the nearby Bogue Creek.

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 Sutherland. “But they seem to work very well. We build the trench and it’s filled with gravel and it has pipe down there to carry the water after it filters itself through this gravel, and the trenches are big enough that they make 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.

Deeper Undercurrents of Change

Innovating solutions to long-standing problems created a new level of community spirit.

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.

On February 28, 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 Binford High School into the Lloyd T. Binford and Lucie E. Campbell Center for Art, Culture and Social Impact using creative place making principles and techniques. The name change elevates the story and presence of Campbell, a historic African-American educator, songwriter, and activist from Duck Hill.

The ASEEDS Partnership comprises local groups: Action Communication and Education Reform (ACER), North Montgomery [County] Communities United for Prosperity (MCUP), the Town of Duck Hill, EcoAdapt (a national nonprofit adaptation and climate change organization), State Bank & Trust and MS State University College of Architecture, Art + Design.

Williams introduced the community to the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Seven Elements of Collaborative Problem Solving Model. She also wrote a resolution that was passed by the city council affirming a commitment to adopt sustainability principles and practices, work to make Duck Hill a more sustainable town, and upgrade its 1975 zoning plan into a livable community and sustainability plan.

The organizing and resident empowerment is definitely a team effort,” says Williams. “Through all of our planning processes, we are working together to educate community about climate change, facilitate and build leadership skills, and introduce residents to the concept of creative placemaking.

Resident empowerment also means jobs. Statistically, Duck Hill has a disproportionate rate of unemployment among African-American males and youth. The storm water mitigation project provided an opportunity to engage in small scale, green infrastructure workforce development. 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.

Healing the Effects of History

Binford High School. Photo: Suzanne Burnes

Shernell and Melba aren’t just leading the charge to address flooding, they’re also addressing Duck Hill’s history of racial division and oppression and building a new social infrastructure in their community.

As former classmates at Binford High School in the 1970s, the two 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.

When I was in school, the gym was the center of the town,” says Rogers, noting the signs in the gym marking state championship basketball tournaments. “We don’t have the school anymore and I guess that’s really what I want. I want the school buildings to be used again and the town come together again.

They began to focus on rallying the community, black and white, around the idea of sustainability, with the high school at the center. What if Duck Hill had fewer floods? What if there was a community garden and residents could learn to grow more of their own food rather than driving more than 10-20 miles to the nearest full service grocery store? What if the area behind the high school could become an outdoor wellness and fitness recreation space? What if the building itself could be renovated into a center for arts, culture and social impact?

At their very first community meeting, 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.

We’ve had a lot of functions, trying to get people to come together,” says Everett. “We had to do that just to try to build the residents self-esteem and trust in the project. Melba has been a big impact because she’s been able to reach the white side, and I pretty much do this [the black] side. So we’re pretty much the glue that’s keeping it together.

One person can’t do it all,” says Rogers. “You’ve got to come together and work as one, whatever race you are. You’ve got to come together and work together. That’s what it’s all about.

I think all the effort has been positive,” says Sutherland. “It’s brought people together who may never have been together before, and I’ve enjoyed the meetings and the information that we’ve gotten from it. I think it has improved our community as a whole, just by dialog. I’ve gotten to know people through this project and expanded my friendships and relationships.

Sixteen inches of rain in four days. That’s what Duck Hill saw in February 2019. Town engineer Joe Sutherland jumped into his truck and drove to Main Street to see what would happen with the new drainage system. As before, the water rose quickly. But this time, it didn’t stick around. The drainage system worked. The water receded within half an hour. The gym still flooded a little, but it wasn’t as devastating.

More importantly, the members of the Duck Hill community realized that together, they could make an impact on reducing storm water flooding and damage – and that they could eventually prevent it if they keep working together and advocating for equitable public and private investments in their communities.

Leveraging Outside Partners and Community Assets

Creek Rangers work on green infrastructure project in Duck Hill.

For the Duck Hill project, Williams reached out to other resources inside and outside the state to support the community’s work.

Landscape architects and engineers from Mississippi State University College of Architecture, Art and Design provide guidance for planning, training, developing green infrastructure and for creating rain gardens and community green spaces around the high school and the gym. They also are helping to plan potential creative placemaking efforts for the building.

ASEEDS partner EcoAdapt, a Washington state-based nonprofit that focuses on helping communities and governments with climate change adaptation, is playing a vital role in addressing the town’s resilience. Lead Scientist Alex Score created a preliminary “Climate Change 101” workshop to help residents recognize the connections between local flooding and broader climate change issues. She supports M-CUP’s communication efforts by creating a toolkit that provides one-pagers, infographics and social media posts for the team to share with the community about the different elements of climate change and adaptation.

She also works with the community to gather and analyze the likely increased impacts of climate change on Duck Hill over time, and will help the community use this data to create a climate adaptation and resiliency plan in the summer of 2019. The plan will become a part of the town’s comprehensive livable communities and sustainability framework.

SSDN also provides coaching and technical assistance to the project through Suzanne Burnes, a consultant to all SSCF grantees. Burnes helps community leaders develop strategies for events and workshops, connects them to other resources for learning, and serves as a check point for accountability.

Community members are stepping up as well, including area Master Gardeners who teach organic gardening classes, and a local middle school teacher who leads middle and high school youth in the Creek Rangers program. Creek Rangers learn how healthy natural waterways contribute to overall green infrastructure for Duck Hill, and are charged with monitoring and protecting the health of area creeks and streams.

At the same time, they learn leadership skills and concepts that they can one day apply as adults to help Duck Hill thrive (after they go off to college, of course!). Ultimately, this form of youth engagement will help reduce out-migration and brain drain from Duck Hill. Twelve youth ages 12-18 participate in the program.

Early this summer, the Creek Rangers will participate in an immersion trip to Atlanta for a peer-to-peer experience with Greening Youth Foundation Urban Youth Corps. They also will engage in a rocket-making workshop as part of the ASEEDS Science, Math, Art, Reading and Technology curriculum. The Creek Rangers are engaged in every aspect of the ASEEDS Initiative and their academic improvement is testament of the program’s success. EcoAdapt and SSDN are making it possible for two Creek Rangers to attend the National Adaptation Forum 2019 bi-annual conference in Minneapolis, Minnesota. As incentive, the Creek Rangers are paid a stipend, and ASEEDS partner, State Bank and Trust provides financial literacy and student savings accounts.

At the behest of Everett, a licensed clergywoman and social worker, the ASEEDS Partnership convened pastors from across the region in December to engage in a strategic dialogue on Climate Change. Speakers Kathy Egland, Chair of the National NAACP Climate Justice Committee, and Rev. Emily Carroll of Green the Church presented on engaging African-American churches in climate resiliency. A delegation of pastors also attended the Equipping the Saints conference in March 2019 to learn about faith-based organizing around climate initiatives and climate justice. Forty-five pastors and several “first ladies” attended a second session on Clergy, Climate and the 2020 Census in March. The Duck Hill first ladies are now planning to form their own Greening Committee.

In addition, the ASEEDS Initiative was used as leverage to compete for the EPA Office of Smart Growth Local Foods, Local Places Technical Assistance Program where residents engaged in a two-day comprehensive local foods planning process. Additionally, Williams applied for and received a creative place making grant from the Delta Regional Authority (DRA) to engage in Main Street Redevelopment planning with Binford High School serving as the anchor project.

Building a More Sustainable Future

These days, when hard rains hit Duck Hill, the storm water still floods some, but instead of soaking the area for hours (and sometimes days), it’s all gone in about 30 minutes. Phase two of the drainage work will address the storm water footprint around the gym, so that flooding will be a thing of the past.

As spring arrives, community gardens are being planned and readied for planting. Creek Rangers are caring for the natural water systems in and around the town, engaging in community service projects, and beginning a mulching and recycling program. They are discovering a sense of pride and place that may keep them connected to Duck Hill and wanting to eventually settle here as adults.

As it enters its second year of SSCF grant funding, the sense of hope in Duck Hill is almost palpable.

It’s been a building-block process and there’s been a lot of growth that has just been remarkable,” says Williams. “It brings me to tears really, to see a community that was on a flatline and now we’re starting to see that community on the rise.

Everett shares a vision for the gym as a place for seniors to gather during the day, and for youth to enjoy during the afternoons and evenings. She even pictures an outdoor movie theater among the shade trees out back.

We are a striving community that really wants to heal and I think people really want to come together,” she says. “There are a lot of good people in Duck Hill, black and white — people who are willing to help. I think once they start seeing the progress, there’s going to be a big difference. The main thing is, I want my community to come together.

On a Thursday evening, Duck Hill native Teresa McClellan makes her way into the old Binford High School gym to join in a one-year celebration of the community’s work to make itself more sustainable. Observant and soft-spoken, McClellan left Duck Hill as a young adult to move up north, then returned with her husband and raised her two boys here, both now successful adults in other places. Tonight, she’s attending her very first sustainability event to see what all the excitement is about. The next evening, she’s back again – this time for an organic gardening class.

This is all new to me,” she says. “I went to school here, but I didn’t know the gym floor [was buckled] like this. I’ve seen where they’re working to put in flowers. I’ll be coming to some meetings now.” As she talks, you can see her begin to regard her hometown in a new light. She shares plans to open a new restaurant downtown with a sense of optimism. “I think it will be great. I can’t wait to get it done.

Unless otherwise credited, all photos are courtesy of Romona Taylor Williams.

About the Author:

Betsey Russell is an expert in foundation and nonprofit branding and communications. She has helped clients with a wide range of needs over the past 20 years.

She has a particular passion for helping foundations express complex concepts to target audiences in a clear and captivating way. In 1996 Betsey created WordOne the first business in the Southeast devoted exclusively to developing strategic marketing communications for nonprofits and charitable foundations.

The firm’s award-winning work has delivered superior results for clients like the Center for Rural Strategies, the Southeastern Council of Foundations, the Atlanta Women’s Foundation, the Georgia Center for Nonprofits and many others. In 2005, Betsey sold WordOne and returned to a full-time freelance practice. In 2014, she published a novel, Other People’s Money, set in the world of Atlanta philanthropy. She is a graduate of Davidson College. She and her husband, Mitch, and their two teenage children live in Asheville, North Carolina.

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