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River lays siege to historic Vicksburg, Miss.

Vicksburg, site of a historic Civil War siege, is now under threat from the rising Mississippi River. In Memphis, Tenn., President Obama meets with flood victims.

May 17, 2011|Times staff and wire reports
  • Brenda Hynum, left, tries to console daughter Debra Emery as she watches floodwaters rise around her mobile home in Vicksburg, Miss. "We tried so hard to stop it. It goes from anger to utter disbelief that this could happen. I just want to go home," Emery said.
Brenda Hynum, left, tries to console daughter Debra Emery as she watches… (Dave Martin, Associated…)

VICKSBURG, MISS. — This historic Civil War city, which withstood a 47-day Union Army siege before its surrender in 1863, faced a different kind of invasion Monday as flooding threatened to top an earthen levee.

The city is perched atop a bluff overlooking the river, and the Vicksburg National Military Park marking the Civil War battle is not threatened, the National Park Service said.

But areas nearby are in peril. The water level at Vicksburg had reached nearly 56.7 feet, several inches above the record of 56.2 feet set in 1927, the National Weather Service said.

Photos: Mississippi River flooding wreaks havoc in the South

Experts say the river will rise nearly another foot in Vicksburg before Thursday, when it is expected to crest at 57.5 feet — 14.5 feet above flood stage.

The Yazoo Backwater Levee has a foot of earth remaining before water begins lapping over it, said Marty Pope, senior hydrologist with the National Weather Service.

"You can see it right now ready to come over the top," Ed McGuiness, a cattle farmer who lives near Vicksburg, told Reuters. "It is like a slow death."

Vicksburg was the site of a pivotal Civil War battle, when Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's Union Army forces besieged the city until its surrender on July 4, 1863. The surrender split the Confederacy, giving control of the Mississippi River to the Union.

Battling the flooding this year, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers placed high-density plastic sheeting along a 4-mile back section of the levee to keep it from eroding if water comes over the top.

The levee was designed to be overtopped, but that has not happened since the 1927 flood, which killed as many as 1,000 people, said corps spokesman Kavanaugh Breazeale.

The Mississippi, swollen by spring rains and snowmelt, has inundated homes and farmland across Missouri, Tennessee, Arkansas, Kentucky and southern Illinois. The river continues to rise as it moves south toward the Gulf of Mexico. Damage to homes, businesses and crops is expected to be in the billions of dollars.

The river is forecast to crest at 63 feet at Natchez, Miss., on Saturday.

Farther north in Memphis, President Obama met with flooding victims and officials and assured them of federal support.

"We're there for you, and we're grateful for your resilience," the White House quoted the president as telling a group of people with whom he met for about 35 minutes. The group included families, state and local officials, emergency personnel and volunteers, Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters traveling with the president.

Obama also gave the commencement speech at Memphis' Booker T. Washington High School, which won a White House contest to earn the president's appearance.

The Mississippi River crested at nearly 48 feet in Memphis last week, just shy of the record set in 1937.

Photos: Mississippi River flooding wreaks havoc in the South

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