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As river rises, residents wonder 'is this bad dream over?'

Residents share tales of worry, sadness as floodwaters threaten communities between Memphis and the Gulf of Mexico.
Image: William Boyle paddles thorough his mother's backyard in Yokena
William Boyle paddles thorough his mother's backyard while checking the property conditions as the rising Mississippi River threatens their home in Yokena, Miss. Sean Gardner / Reuters
/ Source: msnbc.com news services

On 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 along the Mississippi River.

"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.'"

Thousands of other Cajun country residents threatened by the flooding were packing their things, too. On Friday evening, Gov. Bobby Jindal announced his approval for the Army Corps of Engineers to open a massive spillway — inundating hundreds of thousands of rural acres and swamping thousands of homes in an effort to save New Orleans.

People in the towns and farms along the river between Memphis and the Gulf of Mexico told how this slow-moving disaster was upending their lives:

'Our own little world'
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.

This time it's no different, she said.

Sunken 'salvation'
Fellow resident Teresa Meyerer had a different take. She said basin communities were 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?"

She 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 was her "salvation." On weekend retreats from her Baton Rouge home, she could fish off a deck and watch eagles hunt.

Sadness washed over her as she added, "I doubt if I'll ever come back here."

Upset in Amelia, La.
The town’s councilman told CBS affiliate WWLTV.com that he was furious that he submitted plans to protect residents last week, but said he had to wait days for help. Amelia lies west of Morgan City, where 2,500 residents live outside the levee system.

“We went five days with no materials, not even sandbags or sand for the citizens out here,” said Chuck Walters, a St. Mary Parish councilman. “But once again, we’ll channel this into something positive, and hopefully the lord is going to be with us to keep the water levels down.”

Resident Lorena Aucoin said she remembered the 1973 flood and feared what would happen this time.

“When the water hits my floor right here, that water is going to be up to the road, because my trailer is high,” said Aucoin, 89. “But I’m just gonna leave.”

Town officials told the CBS affiliate that they still face the challenge of completing 22,000 feet of levee and stood ready to evacuate, if necessary.

“We just don’t have any clue on what the elevation of the water’s gonna be. I think we can protect up to a plus 5. After that, we’re probably in trouble,” said Gary Duhon, a St. Mary Parish councilman. “I am worried.”

'Is this bad dream over?'
For some, the floods have already destroyed their way of life. Rising waters have swallowed up Bernie Jordan's hopes of reaping a bountiful harvest this September.

Jordan's soybean fields have been turned into lakes and his cornfields destroyed by swollen nearby streams in Carter, Miss.

"I haven’t hardly gotten any sleep in the past week," Jordan, 53, a fourth-generation Delta farmer told The Huffington Post. "And when I do, I wake up and say, 'Is this bad dream over?'"

Crop 'ready to die'
Martin Frey, who farms 1,600 acres within the Morganza Spillway, knows the spillway's opening will also destroy his crops of rice and soybeans. His bigger worry is that the flood could permanently ruin his expensive underground irrigation systems.

"My problem is, we've had to halt our operations and pull our irrigation motors. Now I have a crop sitting out there getting ready to die because we have no rain and we can't pump water," Frey said. "That's almost as disheartening as knowing that all of it's going to be under 15 or 20 feet of water soon."

The Army Corps, which manages the river levees, planned to open the spillway for the first time since 1973.

'Not worried'
An air of nervous calm pervaded New Orleans as residents waited for the wall of water, just six years after the city was devastated by flooding from Hurricane Katrina.

Traffic buzzed along normally on the rising river through New Orleans on Friday, the last big city the river touches before it empties into the Gulf of Mexico.

Unlike some cities and towns to its north, New Orleans was not consumed with flood preparations. Some sandbagging had occurred along the riverfront. But for the most part people were going about their usual activities while keeping an eye on flood news.

"I'm not worried, maybe anxious is the right word," said Oliver Hennessey, a university professor who had bicycled four blocks from his home to the river to get a view from a West Bank levee top. He watched as two large ships swept by moving downstream, seeming to tower above the French Quarter, the city's party district, directly on the other side of the river.

Added Hennessey: "I'm not concerned about flooding really, as long as they're going to open up the Morganza Spillway."

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.