Scrambling to prevent a storm-weakened dam from sending flood waters through communities along the Louisiana-Mississippi border, officials Thursday launched a "controlled’’ water release from the structure in an effort to prevent its collapse. The work came as Isaac was further downgraded to a tropical depression.
“You dig out part of the dam and let the water go out at a controlled rate,” Jeff Rent of the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency said of the plan to protect the dam and nearby communities.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindaland Gordon Burgess, president of Tangipahoa Parish in Louisiana, made another plea for residents downriver to evacuate after inspecting the Lake Tangipahoa dam from the air.
PHOTOS: Isaac lashes Gulf Coast
"You can see the water spilling over,” Jindal said at an afternoon briefing in Tangipahoa Parish. He said officials do not believe the dam has been compromised by rising water from Tropical Storm Isaac. “They do believe the integrity is still sound,” he said.
Still, Jindal said, residents need to "take this seriously.’’
"Even if they declare the operation a success, I would still stay evacuated because if there is a breach, we do not want people evacuating in the middle of the night."
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The dam is in southern Mississippi, but could affect thousands of people in Louisiana.
Some 60,000 people along the Tangipahoa River were told to evacuateThursday, as crews with backhoes, bulldozers, pumps and other equipment rushed to the earthen dam at Percy Quin State Park in Mississippi. A Louisiana National Guard helicopter hovered overhead to monitor conditions.
"Every precaution is being taken to protect the safety of the people and property that may be impacted," said Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant, who was headed to inspect the dam.
If the breach plan works, Jindal said, the river is expected to crest at 15 feet Friday before receding, which could take days, he said.
The governor noted that the area at risk -- about 60 miles northwest of New Orleans, north of Lake Ponchartrain -- has been growing in recent years, with more development, particularly after Hurricane Katrina.
“It does just take a little breach to be a big problem for all of us because that water would get down south quick,” Burgess said, noting the area was already coping with rain.
Thursday also brought reports of the first fatality associated with Isaac.
A tow truck driver, Greg Parker, was killed when a tree fell on the cab of his truck at about midnight Wednesday in Picayune, Miss., according to Tony Bounds, a spokesman for Pearl River County's emergency operations center in Poplarville, Miss.
"With one of those wind gusts, the tree came over and crushed him,” Bounds said.
Parker was 62 and lived in an unincorporated area of the county, Bounds said.
No other injuries had been reported in the area by Thursday afternoon, but Interstate 59 had been shut down due to flooding, and emergency responders continued to rescue drivers trapped in their cars by standing and rising water, Bounds said.
“We still have rain, we’re dealing with flooding, lots of flooding. All of the rivers and creeks and streams are forecasted to reach major flood levels,” he said.
The downgraded Isaac, meanwhile, slogged inland over northern Louisiana, even as it continued to drench southeastern Louisiana and Mississippi.
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