BUTTE LAROSE, La. — Some 400 more people in a Civil War town were told to evacuate Thursday, while downriver thousands hurriedly packed ahead of an expected decision to flood their farms and towns in order to protect Baton Rouge and New Orleans.
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County officials ordered evacuations Thursday in Vicksburg, Miss., after determining that U.S. 61 would soon be cut off by rising waters. The downtown area of the historic town sits on a protected bluff, but dozens of homes at river level have already been swamped by the Mississippi or the Yazoo River, a tributary.
The Army Corps of Engineers also placed high-density plastic sheeting along a 4-mile section of the Yazoo Backwater levee to keep it from eroding if the levee is overrun, said Kavenaugh Breazeale, a spokesman for the agency responsible for flood control.
"That's the biggest monster to a levee — erosion," said Breazeale. The Yazoo Backwater levee is designed to hold the Yazoo River and the Mississippi from flowing into the south Delta. If there were no levee, up to 2 million acres of land would be flooded, he said.
In Louisiana, meanwhile, the corps is close to opening a massive spillway that would flood hundreds of thousands of acres in Cajun country — an area of 25,000 residents known for small farms, fish camps, crawfish and a drawling French dialect.
The area includes the town of Butte LaRose, where residents gathered earlier this week at their volunteer fire station to hear a man in Army fatigues deliver an ominous flood forecast.
Col. Ed Fleming leaned over a podium this week and warned that projections by the Army Corps of Engineers call for the station to be inundated by up to 15 feet of water. The crowd let out a collective gasp.
"From the ground?" an incredulous resident shouted at the meeting.
"From the ground," replied Fleming, head of the corps' New Orleans district.
A few skeptics in the audience scoffed at the projection, but many others were shaken. "It's over with," muttered Pierre Watermeyer. "That's it. There's no sense in pretending."
Teresa Meyerer said basin communities are being treated like "sacrificial lambs."
"They say it's for the good of the metropolitan areas," she said. "I've seen what they do in metropolitan areas. They pave paradise and put up a parking lot. Is the destruction worth it for dollars?"
Meyerer fought back tears as she packed her belongings in plastic bags and loaded some of her cherished paintings and art supplies into the back of her car. The camp she bought in Butte LaRose 13 years ago is her "salvation." On weekend retreats from her Baton Rouge home, she can fish off a deck and watch eagles hunt.
"I doubt if I'll ever come back here," she said. "I'm 67. I'm a widow. I have asthma. How is it possible?"
The corps could open the Morganza floodway north of Baton Rouge as early as this weekend, a move that would relieve pressure on the city's levee system.
Opening the spillway gates for the first time in 38 years will unleash the Mississippi on a wild ride south to the Gulf of Mexico through the Atchafalaya River and divert floodwater from the river into the basin's swamplands, backwater lakes and bayous. Several thousand homes would be at risk of flooding.
Even if engineers decide against opening the spillway, no one seems to doubt that a major flood is bound for Butte LaRose, Krotz Springs, the oil-and-seafood hub of Morgan City and other swampland communities in the Atchafalaya Basin.
The Morganza and the nearby Old River Control Structure were built in the 1950s to keep the Mississippi on its current course through New Orleans, one of the world's busiest ports.
If the river rises much higher at New Orleans, the Coast Guard said Thursday that it would consider restrictions on shipping, including potentially closing the channel to the largest, heaviest ships.
A shutdown would temporarily cut off gasoline supplies shipped from several major U.S. refineries upriver.
For the people of this region, floods from rain-swollen rivers and hurricanes are a familiar hazard. Floodwaters damaged or destroyed many homes and fishing camps in Butte LaRose in 1973, the last time the corps opened the Morganza spillway. Many residents had to wait several weeks before they could return.
Maxim Doucet was born that year. His parents stayed put, even when the floodwaters started lapping at the rear of their grocery store.
Doucet has no intention of leaving town, either. The water didn't seep into the store when the flood gauge hit 27 feet in 1973, so Doucet can't believe the center of town will be submerged in 15 feet of water if the latest forecast for 29 feet proves accurate.
While most of his neighbors were packing up, Doucet deployed a team of workers and heavy machinery to erect a 6-foot levee around his home on the banks of the Atchafalaya River. A dump truck hauled in roughly 1,000 cubic yards of clay for a bulldozer and front-end loader to fashion a protective ring around the rear of Doucet's three-story house.
"I figured I'd give Mother Nature a run for her money," said Doucet, who owns a construction company called Monster Heavy Haulers. "Money is no object when you're trying to save your house."
On the other side of Butte LaRose's main street, Russell Calais nursed a beer as his family loaded all his belongings into moving trucks. Affectionately described by one of his daughters as "a typical bull-headed Cajun," he didn't know they would be coming to evacuate him and his wife, Judy.
"We didn't give him an option," said his daughter, Konie Calais Heard of Lafayette.
Calais said he had planned to wait until the floodwaters rose high enough to float his homemade boat, so he could patrol the neighborhood and protect his property.
"I made up my mind I wasn't going to leave," he said. "After I sat down and drank about 10 or 12 Coors, I said, 'Well, it's time.'"
Interactive: Satellite views of Mississippi River flooding (on this page)
Water may drive these families out of their homes, but it's also what will bring them back to repair and rebuild. Five generations of Pamela Guidry's family have called Butte LaRose home. Her father was a commercial fisherman. Her brothers catch crawfish for money. She worked at a seafood-packing business.
"I didn't want my kids growing up in a city. I wanted them to learn how to live the hard way," she said. "They had to learn how to survive on their own down here. Once you're out of Butte LaRose, you're out in society, out of our own little world."
Guidry said her family weathered the 1973 floods and the great flood of 1927 without any thought of leaving town for good.
"The water receded. They cleaned up. Their lives went on," she said.
If the Corps gets permission to open half of Morganza's 125 gates, water from the Mississippi is expected to arrive in Butte LaRose in about one day. Within three days, it would reach Morgan City, a community of about 12,000.
Morgan City Mayor Timothy Matte said the main floodwalls should be able to handle the river's frontal attack, but he was less certain about the back levees that protect the city from floodwaters that collect in lakes north of town. He said the waters could reach within a foot of the top of those levees.
"It is very close to the top," he said.
On Thursday, two shipyards were closed in preparation for the arrival of high water, but the town's riverboat casino remained open.
The Louisiana National Guard was raising those levees with Hesco baskets, which are sort of industrial-size sandbags. In Butte LaRose, inmates from the St. Martin Parish jail filled sandbags for residents to pick up. Some wondered if it was a futile gesture.
In other developments:
- Baton Rouge was topping a two-mile stretch of levees with "Tiger Dams" — long rubber tubes filled with water that provide 18 more inches of height.
- In New Orleans, sandbags have been placed along the Riverfront across from Jackson Square, but officials were confident water diversions would work to ease pressure on levees.
- Thunderstorms are also expected on Thursday night into Friday, which could bring another inch of rain into the area and create the potential for flash flooding. "The area is full right now so any more rain will make it worse," said Marty Pope, senior hydrologist with the National Weather Service."
- In southeast Missouri, where floodwaters were receding, residents of hard-hit towns were getting their first look at the damage. The Southeast Missourian reported Thursday that streets in the town of Morehouse, where about 280 homes were damaged, were lined with piles of ruined couches, beds, clothing and carpeting. The stench of mold filled the air. "Everything was ruined. Even if it didn't get wet, it got mold on it," said Melissa Massey, whose home had five inches of water in it for five days. "Mold is growing up the walls right now."
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.