All along the swollen Mississippi River, hundreds of thousands of lives depend on a small army of engineers, deputies and even prison inmates keeping round-the-clock watch at the many flood walls and earthen levees holding the water back.
They are looking for any droplets that seep through the barriers and any cracks that threaten to turn small leaks into big problems. The work is hot and sometimes tedious, but without it, the flooding that has caused weeks of misery from Illinois to the Mississippi Delta could get much worse.
"For the most part, it's hot and boring until you find something," Col. Jeffrey Eckstein, commander of the Vicksburg, Miss., district of the Army Corps of Engineers, told The Associated Press as he toured the river last week.
Although the job requires 24-hour vigilance, Reynold Minsky, president of a north Louisiana levee district, said there are some places in his mostly rural district of forest and farmland where he will not ask anyone to go after sundown.
"Unless we've got a serious situation that we know we've found before dark, we don't ask these people to go into these wooded areas because of the snakes and the alligators," Minsky told the AP while taking a break from helicopter tours of the levees. "That's inhumane."
Minsky said his 5th Louisiana Levee District is plagued these days by "sand boils" — places where river water has found a way through earthen levees and bubbled up on the dry side like an artesian well. He insists they are no reason for alarm. If the water is clear, as it has been so far, that means the levee is not eroding. Stopping the boil involves ringing it with sandbags.
"We've got more sand boils than we've had in recent days, and we're going to have more. We know that," Minsky said. "They're popping up in different places that we've not had them before."
Flooding 'A Fact Of Life' In Louisiana Bayou
To take pressure off levees near Baton Rouge and New Orleans, the corps has opened two major spillways. After water was released over the weekend at the Morganza spillway near Baton Rouge, deputies and National Guardsmen fanned out to warn residents in its path, most of whom have heeded the call to seek higher ground.
New projections by the Army Corps of Engineers suggest fewer people will be flooded out when the Mississippi River crests in parts of Louisiana late this week, because tributaries are pouring less water into the Mississippi River than anticipated.
But that doesn't change the picture for people in bayou communities such as St. Landry Parish in Louisiana.
Wendy Moreau has already moved out of her home on the Atchafalaya River. She said the river is still going to flood, and if it's anything like the one in 1973, she won't expect to get back into her home until the end of the summer.
"It [the Atchafalaya] can get angry, and it's angry right now. When you live in the flood [zone], you're always, you know, going to expect it," Moreau told NPR.
Back then, she said, houses came floating down the river. This time, she'll be staying in nearby Melville, which is ringed by levees and should be safe from flooding.
Just down the road, Alec Dugas was rushing to get his property out of harm's way. He owns a fencing company and was working to move several hundred galvanized metal fence posts. He figured he has five days before the water covers the area.
Dugas says many people view flooding as a fact of life — part of what makes the Atchafalaya basin special. And he had nothing but compliments for the Army Corps of Engineers, even though the decision to open the Morganza spillway has added to flooding in the Atchafalaya basin.
"They're doing it right," Dugas told NPR. "They're doing it a little at a time to give animals a chance to get out. ... It's an abundance of wildlife in that basin, but you're going to see them all be coming across here and everywhere else, bears and everything else."
Major Shipping Route Is Shut Down
In another high-stakes decision meant to protect homes and businesses along the Mississippi, the Coast Guard said Tuesday that it has interrupted shipping along the major artery for moving grain from farms in the Midwest to the Gulf of Mexico.
The Coast Guard said it closed the Mississippi River at the port in Natchez, Miss., because barge traffic could increase pressure on the levees. Heavy flooding from Mississippi tributaries has displaced more than 4,000 in the state, about half of them upstream from Natchez in the Vicksburg area.
Several barges were idled at Natchez at the time of the closure, and many more could back up along the lower Mississippi. It wasn't clear when the river would reopen, but port officials said the interruption could cost the U.S. economy hundreds of millions of dollars per day.
Economic pain from the flooding could be felt far from the South because of the river closure. During the spring, the Mississippi is a highway for towboats pushing barges laden with corn, soybeans and other crops brought down from the Ohio, Missouri and Mississippi river systems. Farm products come down the river to a port near New Orleans to be loaded onto massive grain carriers for export.
At least 10 freight terminals along the lower Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans have suspended operations because of the high water, said Roy Gonzalez, acting president of the Gulf States Maritime Association. In many cases, he said, their docks are already at water level or going under.
Vessels scheduled to use the terminals will either have to wait out the high water or divert to other terminals or ports. Additional costs for delaying any one vessel routinely run $20,000 to $40,000 per day, port officials say.
NPR's Greg Allen reported from Baton Rouge, La., for this story, which contains material from The Associated Press. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.