Mississippi River still on the rise

By Michael Kunzelman

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, May 21 2011 10:57 p.m. MDT

The 'Bettye M. Jenkins' tugboat assists in pushing barges loaded with light cycle oil upriver, underneath the bridges connecting Natchez, Miss., and Vidalia, La., in the swollen Mississippi River, Saturday, May 21, 2011. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Associated Press

BUTTE LAROSE, La. — The final wave of holdouts has mostly packed up and left this Louisiana town as water from the swollen Atchafalaya River has inched toward their homes, with their frustration and hope painted on signs posted outside.

"Nothing left worth stealing," read one. "Stay strong. Believe," urged another. "Our hearts are broken, but our spirits are not. We will come HOME," are the words Kip and Gwen Bacquet spray-painted on the plastic liner that covers the entire first floor of their house.

Most had left Butte LaRose days earlier amid high tension as the water continued its trek toward the area, about 45 miles west of Baton Rouge.

The Army Corps of Engineers partially opened the Mississippi River's Morganza floodway May 14 to spare Baton Rouge and New Orleans from catastrophic flooding, but the water it was diverting from the Mississippi River into the Atchafalaya Basin still hadn't reached the town nearly a week later.

While Mississippi communities that line their namesake river were waiting for floodwaters to recede Saturday, Louisiana residents in the path of diverted waters were enduring an agonizing wait.

In St. Martin's Parish, La., a mandatory evacuation was ordered to take effect Saturday, only to be pushed back at least two days after officials said the river would crest May 27 at a lower level than previously thought. Meanwhile, communities along the Mississippi River in Mississippi wait for floodwaters to recede.

The delayed evacuation in St. Martin's Parish, La. is likely to be a source of both optimism and further frustration for residents who have heard the same grim forecast for days on end. Once the water comes, residents may not be able to return for weeks. They'll have to wait until Monday for officials to decide whether to reinstate the evacuation order.

"It's probably a blessing for some because maybe some people who didn't have time to do additional sandbagging will now have more time," said Maj. Ginny Higgins, a spokeswoman for the St. Martin's Parish sheriff's office.

Kip and Gwen Bacquet moved their furniture and other belongings to the second floor of their home, nine feet off the ground. They are bracing for up to five feet of water to inundate their neighborhood. Gwen Bacquet, 54, said the canal in their backyard has been rising about four inches per day. Their pier already was underwater.

The couple moved here last summer for a change of pace from their native Lafayette, a city of about 120,000 some 60 miles west of Baton Rouge. The Bacquets savored their final hours before evacuating by lounging on the deck overlooking the canal in their backyard, sharing a few bittersweet laughs with two friends who came to help.

"I'm probably numb," Gwen Bacquet said. "We still don't know what to expect."

Before leaving town, they planned for their last act: shutting off the electricity.

"Would the last people to leave Butte LaRose please turn out the lights?" Kip Bacquet joked.

Farther up the Atchafalaya River, St. Landry Parish imposed a mandatory evacuation last Sunday for several areas outside the ring levees protecting Krotz Springs and Melville. Hundreds of homes in all the evacuated areas are believed to be at risk of flooding.

The wait has been difficult for Michelle McInnis, 37, who was preparing to leave town Friday after 10 days of packing up the camp she shares with her boyfriend, Todd Broussard. She calls the National Weather Service every morning and uses the agency's measurements to chart the slowly rising water's progress on a calendar.

McInnis, 37, was living in Sulphur, in southwest Louisiana, when Hurricane Rita wiped out her home in 2005. In some ways, she said, the threat from the rising river is tougher to endure than the fury of a hurricane.

"The waiting game is worse," she said. "This right now is mentally tormenting, this slow rising."

It was a different story in Vicksburg, Miss., where residents wanted to know Saturday when the water would finally recede. On Saturday, Chris Lynn fired up his small aluminum boat and traveled about a mile to check out his father's house. The home sits on a 15-foot mound of dirt on the Mississippi River's banks, much like an island in the murky water.

"It looks like the water has come down about 2 inches," Lynn said, grabbing his cell phone to call his 73-year-old father with the news. "That's good. The floor is starting to dry out."

Sections of Vicksburg that have been flooded for weeks remain swamped Saturday with water higher than some mailboxes and street signs and up the roofs on some homes.

Even though the Mississippi River is slowly falling, it is still so high that water is backing up into its tributaries, especially the Yazoo River.

Marty Pope, a senior service hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Jackson, said Saturday that the Yazoo River is not expected to crest until Monday at Yazoo City and two days later at Belzoni.

Pope said that means while floodwaters are going to recede in some areas, they will continue to rise in others.

"I'll be glad to see that water start surging the other way," Pope said.

The weather service predicted Saturday that an inch or more of rain would fall in Louisiana in the coming days while five to six inches of rain was expected upriver in Illinois and Indiana. As that water flows down the Mississippi, it could also slow the receding of floodwaters in southern states.

Back in Butte LaRose, Tommy Girouard, 57, and his brother, Keith, 53, are hunkering down to ride out the flood on Tommy's 60-foot house boat. Girouard said he is staying to protect his $150,000 investment in the boat.

"It's safe on here," he said. "It shouldn't be a problem. Just tightening and loosening ropes, we should be fine."

The brothers stocked up on 400 gallons of gas and bought enough food to last two months.

"How many boxes of fudgicles? Eight boxes?" he asked his brother.

Sheriff's deputies and National Guard troops knocked on his door Thursday, warning him about the evacuation that has since been temporarily lifted and telling him to sign a form that says he understands the risks of staying.

"Didn't read it. Wasn't interested," Girouard said. "I can't just walk away from this."

The brothers parked a car and left a boat and two canoes on the other side of a levee. They hope to be able to come and go if need be.

"I can go get out the back way where they won't even know," Girouard said. "Worst comes to worst, we'll just untie and take off."

One of the few who vowed to ride out the floodwaters was Randy Moncrief, 50, a retired tug boat captain who planned to stay in his family's camp along the canal so he could watch his neighbors' property.

"I ain't here to prove a point," he said. "I'm just here to pass along information. That's harder than anything — the not knowing."

Moncrief's father was building the camp in 1973, the last time the corps opened the Morganza floodway. He said the floodwaters didn't even reach the foundation of the home.

A neighbor gave him a camera to take pictures of the flooding for an insurance claim. Another paid him for cell phone minutes so he can call in updates. Somebody even gave him a sack full of shotgun shells to kill the snakes slithering through the area. He's already killed about six of them, payback for the water snake that bit his hand on Wednesday, sending him to the hospital.

"The water is up. It's making them run for high ground," Moncrief said, showing off the bite marks on his swollen hand.

Associated Press writer Holbrook Mohr in Vicksburg, Miss., contributed to this report.

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