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Monday, May 16, 2011

Louisiana residents evacuate as spillway fills lowlands

Butte La Rose, Louisiana  Unleashed by its U.S. Army minders, the Mississippi River poured across Louisiana lowlands Monday on its way to inundate thousands of homes and businesses as the Corps of Engineers fights to spare Baton Rouge and New Orleans.
"Hope you appreciate this Baton Rouge. You're welcome," read one sign posted outside a home in the path of the floodwater.
St. Martin Parish President Guy Cormier said about three-quarters of his constituents' homes are expected to suffer water damage after the weekend opening of the Morganza Spillway by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The controlled release of water from the swollen Mississippi has lowered projected flood levels for cities downstream -- but the lowered crests are little consolation to those living along the Atchafalaya River basin, where the water is being diverted.
"It just tears my heart up to know that these people's lives are fixing to change," Cormier said.
And Krotz Springs, about 20 miles down the Atchafalaya, Mayor Carroll Snyder told CNN that workers are scrambling to put together a temporary levee to protect about 240 homes on the south side of town.
"They're not happy with it, but it's something that we've been knowing for quite some time -- that it was inevitable, that it would have to be opened," Snyder said. "They've come to deal with it."
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Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal offered at least a ray of hope to his state's residents on Monday, saying the decision to open the spillway has lowered crest projections in parts of the state. Just as important, river observations now suggest the Corps may need to divert less water from the spillway than initially thought, he said.
That would mean less water in communities in the path of the spillway, he said. But he warned that flooding, in some cases at record levels, is still coming.
"There is still a significant amount of water coming our way," he said.
Based on historical estimates, damages to agriculture alone in Louisiana could total $300 million, Jindal said.
A near-record crests is forecast in Greenville, Mississippi, on Tuesday, followed through the weekend by record crests in Vicksburg and Natchez, Mississippi; Red River Landing, Louisiana, and Baton Rouge, according to the National Weather Service.
In Greenville, more than 200 miles north of the spillway, the river was just short of its projected crest of 64.3 feet at noon Monday, according to the Weather Service. That was more than 16 feet over flood stage and less than a foot below the peak of the historic flood of 1927.
In Natchez, the river is expected to rise five feet above the 1927 record of 58 feet, weather service forecasts show. The predicted crest is 15 feet above flood stage, and the Coast Guard has closed the river to navigation along a 15-mile stretch near the city, Cmdr. Mark Moland said Monday.
High water has already chased members of the U.S. Coast Guard stationed in Natchez from their offices, Chief Boatswain's Mate Bo Smith said. The 16 people stationed there are currently working aboard the USCG Cutter Greenbriar, Smith said.
In Louisiana, about 2,500 people and 2,000 structures directly in the path of the Morganza Spillway water face certain flooding, Jindal said. As many as 22,500 other people will either experience flooding or have to depend on newly built and enhanced levees to protect their property, he said.
The state will finish evacuating the Angola State Prison on Monday after moving 3,500 inmates. Some will remain behind, living in tents on high ground if necessary, he said. About 300 are helping with the flood fight,
The flood, the most significant in the lower Mississippi River valley since at least 1937, has affected nine states: Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio, Indiana, Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi.
Across the South and lower Midwest, floodwaters have already covered about 3 million acres of farmland, eroding for many farmers what could have been a profitable year for corn, wheat, rice and cotton, officials said.
As many as 22 cities and communities where river levels are monitored by the U.S. government remain flooded, some of them weeks after both the Mississippi and Ohio rivers climbed out of their banks.
Six days after the Mississippi River crested at Memphis, Tennessee, the water remains 11 feet above flood stage, according to the National Weather Service. President Barack Obama spent about 35 minutes privately speaking with flood victims and responders during a visit to Memphis on Monday, according to Press Secretary Jay Carney.
The swollen knot in the river is currently passing through Louisiana, where residents have packed up their valuables and made last-ditch efforts to place sandbags and makeshift levees outside their homes.
"I have never experienced anything like this in my life," Brett Ansley, 24, said Sunday as he was hitching up his trailer home in Krotz Springs to move it to higher ground. "It's crazy. It's unreal."
When the Corps of Engineers opened two gates in the Morganza Spillway on Saturday, it was the first time in almost 40 years any of the 125 bays had been opened. The Corps opened seven more gates on Sunday, according to agency spokesman Ricky Boyett, and two more were opened at midday Monday.
The plan is to let out water from as many as one-fourth of the spillway's bays.
"We have taken the top off that, so you won't see the water get much higher than the current stages they're at," said Col. Ed Fleming, commander of the Corps' New Orleans District.
Officials say the spillway's gates are likely to be open for weeks, and it will be weeks before the river falls below flood stage and those who have evacuated can safely return.
Authorities in Louisiana's St. Landry Parish issued a mandatory evacuation that affected about 2,000 people -- including about 750 people living in 240 homes in Krotz Springs. Residents in other areas were under a voluntary evacuation, with authorities encouraging but not ordering them to leave.
Don Menard, the parish's president, said Sunday afternoon that water levels in Krotz Springs appeared lower than expected, though he said he thought they'd rise considerably after midnight, and as more floodgates are opened.
"It's the fear of the unknown," Menard said, noting estimates that the water could rise 10 to 15 feet in spots. "These are predictions; no one knows for sure what will happen."
The weather service predicted the Mississippi River will crest at 45 feet in Baton Rouge, the Louisiana capital, on Tuesday. That is 2.5 feet lower and six days earlier than the weather service had forecast prior to the opening of the Morganza spillway. On Monday, it was 44.6 feet.
In New Orleans, the river on Monday was already cresting at 17 feet, one week earlier and more than two feet lower than previously projected by the National Weather Service. It is also four feet lower than the historic level recorded in New Orleans in 1922.

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