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Delta states prepare for the worst of Mississippi River flooding

Forecasters predict record-breaking river crests in Mississippi and Tennessee over the next few weeks. In Louisiana, the flood crest is expected to move slowly downstream toward New Orleans. The swollen river has already forced thousands of people along the route to seek higher ground.

May 11, 2011|By Michael Muskal

The swollen Mississippi River carried its dangers of flooding and damage toward the Delta on Wednesday morning as residents in three states including Louisiana prepared for weeks of battling the river’s growing energy.

The river crested just inches below its record stage of 48.7 feet in Memphis, Tenn., on Tuesday. But, by Wednesday morning, the river had passed its record in Natchez, Miss., reaching 58 feet and growing, according to the National Weather Service. Forecasters predict the river will crest in Natchez on May 21 at about 64 feet.

At Vicksburg, Miss., the river is expected to crest at 57.5 feet on May 19, about 1.5 feet above the record crest of 1927, according to the Army Corps of Engineers. In Helena, Ark., the river on Wednesday was at more than 56 feet, about 12 feet above flood stage.

Photos: Mississippi River flooding

“The flood crest along the Mississippi is forecast to move slowly downstream towards New Orleans during the next three weeks,” the weather service said in a posting on its website Wednesday morning.

“The White River, the Arkansas River, Big Black River are just a few major tributaries that may be impacted by the Mississippi main stem flooding. Interstate 40 west of Memphis between Hazen and Brinkley is closed in both directions due to the White River overflowing its banks. At this time there is no anticipated time for reopening the road," the statement said.

The swollen river has forced thousands of people along the watery route to seek higher ground, hundreds going to shelters. Crops have been washed away, hundreds of millions of dollars in damage has already been reported and more is expected. As the floodwater moves south, officials worry about the impact on Mississippi’s casino industry and later on Louisiana’s petroleum facilities.

Officials said they were checking levees along the river and taking precautions. In Louisiana, state officials said that inmates were filling sandbags to be used if the Morganza spillway is opened near Baton Rouge. On Monday, the corps said they have begun opening the Bonnet Carre spillway near New Orleans and the Morganza could be opened this weekend. The floodway pours into the Atchafalaya River, and on to the Gulf of Mexico.

“We know the corps will make the decision to open the Morganza Spillway when the trigger point of 1.5 million cubic feet per second at the Red River Landing gauge is reached,” Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said in a posting on his website. “The corps said they expect this trigger to be reached by Saturday.

Jindal also said there were projections of how many would be affected by the opening.

“The corps also presented us today with information on population statistics and structures that could be impacted by the opening of the Spillway. Their information shows that there are about 2,500 people located inside the Spillway and 2,000 structures. In the backwater area, there are about 22,500 people and 11,000 structures that would be impacted by the Morganza Spillway opening,” he said.

As the river rises, the casino industry will begin to shut down, Jindal noted.

“In Baton Rouge, the Coast Guard told us the Hollywood Casino will shut down their operations at 45 feet, which is estimated to be on the 15th, and the Casino Rouge will shut down operations at 47 feet, which is projected to be on the 22nd. The Hollywood Casino in downtown Baton Rouge is already experiencing some flooding in their parking lot,” the governor stated.

Two of the casinos near Vicksburg have already closed, idling at least 1,200 workers.

Jindal also said that about 500 Louisiana National Guard troops will be deployed.

Photos: Mississippi River flooding

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