Mississippi Crest 'By No Means The End Of It'

May 20, 2011

NPR Staff and Wires

Eddie Simmons was relieved to hear that the Mississippi River crested slightly lower than expected north of him in Vicksburg, Miss., confident his house would survive the flooding that is plaguing many states.

Simmons, a retired logger, is recovering from hip-replacement surgery and can barely leave his bed. Despite water swamping his front yard and creeping beneath his house in Port Gibson, he has decided to ride it out.

"It's God's work. You've got to deal with him. You can run to high ground, but if God wants to come there, he can come there. You might as well stay put."

The Mississippi River crested at more than 14 feet above flood stage in Vicksburg on Thursday, slightly lower than expected, easing worries about water potentially spilling over a nearby levee and inundating thousands more acres of farmland.

Still, officials warned that the flood was by no means over. The river was expected to stay at its crest for several days before beginning a long, slow retreat. It could remain above flood stage until mid-June.

"The crest is by no means the end of it," said Col. Jeffrey R. Eckstein, commander of the Army Corps of Engineers' Vicksburg District.

In Southern Louisiana, residents were waiting to see where water flowing through the Morganza Spillway will end up. NPR's Jeff Brady reported that the small town of Krotz Springs built two miles of temporary levees that it hoped could withstand the coming rush of water.

Town Clerk Suzanne Belleau said the community is prepared but also on edge.

"I think people are anxious and worried because they don't know — just like all of us — what the outcome is going to be," she said.

Krotz Springs sits next to the Atchafalaya River, which is expected to crest next week. The Louisiana National Guard was patrolling the streets in sand-colored military trucks and keeping curious residents off of levees.

In the Louisiana town of Butte LaRose, a mandatory evacuation order was set to kick in Saturday as water is expected to start reaching communities in the basin. Authorities have been going door to door notifying residents, though many already have evacuated.

The corps began opening the Morganza spillway nearly a week ago as part of a plan to protect Baton Rouge and New Orleans from the river. That move intentionally flooded part of Cajun country, including areas that rely on the fish and oil industries.

As the water passes through the floodgates, it pours down a 20-mile spillway and into the Atchafalaya River. Homes along the river above the oil-and-seafood hub of Morgan City, La., will be vulnerable to flooding for at least another week.

On Friday, Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Robert Papp toured parts of the Mississippi and was briefed about efforts to control shipping traffic. He began in Natchez, Miss., where Coast Guard personnel said the river is expected to fully recede by mid-June. Officials said they plan to eventually spend at least a week re-marking the river so cargo ships and barges can safely navigate the waterway.

Barge companies have had to reduce speeds and the size of their loads so the tow boat has more control in the swiftly moving high water.

Merritt Lane, CEO of Canal Barge Company, said that even restricted movement is better than none at all.

"There was a time about a week ago where we really had our doubts as to whether the system would be able to stay open like that."

Papp was briefed that it will take a week to re-mark the river so tow boats can safely navigate. Port officials have said that delaying a vessel costs between $20,000 and $40,000 a day.

On Thursday, authorities reported the first person to die in Mississippi floodwaters since the mighty river began climbing out its banks last month in the Midwest a 69-year-old man who apparently collapsed in the high water.

At least eight deaths in Arkansas have been attributed to flooding, but all of those happened in flash floods or Mississippi tributaries.

Walter Cook was pulled from the water Tuesday by two firefighters on boat patrol in downtown Vicksburg.

David Day, who owns a restaurant near Cook's home, said Cook — a frequent customer — came in Tuesday asking for a lighter.

Day said he gave Cook a lighter and thought he was going home, but instead Cook went deeper into the water, which soon reached up to his waist. Day said he yelled a warning to Cook, but he kept going.

Soon after, Cook collapsed. He was pronounced dead Thursday at a hospital.

With reporting from New Orleans by NPR's Jeff Brady and Blake Farmer of member station WPLN. Material from The Associated Press was used in this story. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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