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Residents warned to leave flood zone

Published: Friday, Sept. 4 2015 8:34 a.m. MDT

Billy Hanchett stands underneath chairs that he tied to the ceiling of his garage in Krotz Springs, La., Sunday, May 15, 2011, to prepare for forecasted flooding brought on by the opening of the Morganza Spillway north of town. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky) (Associated Press) Billy Hanchett stands underneath chairs that he tied to the ceiling of his garage in Krotz Springs, La., Sunday, May 15, 2011, to prepare for forecasted flooding brought on by the opening of the Morganza Spillway north of town. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky) (Associated Press)

KROTZ SPRINGS, La. — Deputies warned people Sunday to get out as Mississippi River water gushing from a floodgate for the first time in four decades crept ever closer to communities in Louisiana Cajun country, slowly filling a river basin like a giant bathtub.

Most residents heeded the warnings and headed for higher ground, even in places where there hasn't been so much as a trickle, hopeful that the flooding engineered to protect New Orleans and Baton Rouge would be merciful to their way of life.

Days ago, many of the towns known for their Cajun culture and drawling dialect fluttered with activity as people filled sandbags and cleared out belongings. By Sunday, some areas were virtually empty as the water from the Mississippi River, swollen by snowmelt and heavy rains, slowly rolled across the Atchafalaya River basin. It first started to come, in small amounts, into people's yards in Melville on Sunday. But it still had yet to move farther downstream.

The floodwaters could reach depths of 20 feet in the coming weeks, though levels were nowhere close to that yet.

Billy Hanchett, center, and his girlfriend Renee Ledoux pose in their bare living room in Krotz Springs, La., Sunday, May 15, 2011, after emptying their house in advance of forecasted flooding brought on by the opening of the Morganza Spillway north of town. Hanchett and Ledoux plan to stay in a trailer parked outside of their home for as long as possible. If high flood waters force local officials close access to the town, which is protected by a ring levee, they plan to pull their trailer inside the ring and wait for the water to recede. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky) (Associated Press) Billy Hanchett, center, and his girlfriend Renee Ledoux pose in their bare living room in Krotz Springs, La., Sunday, May 15, 2011, after emptying their house in advance of forecasted flooding brought on by the opening of the Morganza Spillway north of town. Hanchett and Ledoux plan to stay in a trailer parked outside of their home for as long as possible. If high flood waters force local officials close access to the town, which is protected by a ring levee, they plan to pull their trailer inside the ring and wait for the water to recede. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky) (Associated Press)

The spillway's opening diverted water from heavily populated New Orleans and Baton Rouge — along with chemical plants and oil refineries along the Mississippi's lower reaches — easing pressure on the levees there in the hope of avoiding potentially catastrophic floods.

About 11 miles north of Krotz Springs in the town of Melville, water was already starting to creep into some people's backyards. Parts of the town not protected by levees were under a mandatory evacuation order. Glenda Maddox's husband had temporarily reopened the gas station he closed in December so people could fuel up before they leave.

"Nobody knows what's going to happen," she said. "We don't know if the levee is going to hold up."

The station's shelves were mostly barren, save for a few soft drinks and bottles of motor oil. Only cash was accepted — no credit cards.

Chandler Wheat loads sand bags onto a wagon in Butte LaRose, La., Sunday, May 15, 2011, as he helps his brother prepare his house before evacuating.  Forecasted flooding of the Mississippi River brought on by the opening of the Morganza Spillway north of Butte LaRose has led many residents to leave their homes. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky) (Associated Press) Chandler Wheat loads sand bags onto a wagon in Butte LaRose, La., Sunday, May 15, 2011, as he helps his brother prepare his house before evacuating. Forecasted flooding of the Mississippi River brought on by the opening of the Morganza Spillway north of Butte LaRose has led many residents to leave their homes. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky) (Associated Press)

In Butte LaRose, some 50 miles downstream from where the Morganza spillway was opened, no water was expected until at least later Sunday.

Chalmers Wheat, 54, was among the few left — and even he was headed for his father's home in Baton Rouge outside the flood zone. He and his brother were making a few final preparations to protect his home with plastic lining and sandbags.

"It's almost like a ghost town," said Wheat, who was getting some help from his twin brother, Chandler.

Sandbags were still available in the center of town, but there were few takers Sunday.

Krotz Springs is roughly 30 miles closer to the floodgates, and deputies ordered people to evacuate Sunday morning even though the water hadn't yet arrived.

Josh Cummings of the National Guard watches a backhoe drop dirt into baskets in Krotz Springs, La. (Associated Press) Josh Cummings of the National Guard watches a backhoe drop dirt into baskets in Krotz Springs, La. (Associated Press)

Wayne Duplechain, who lives in the parish about eight miles outside Krotz Springs, said he would have his family stay in a camper parked on his son's property outside the flood zone. He hoped to return, though, and ride out the flooding. He has three layers of sandbags stacked 2 feet high surrounding his ranch-style, brick house and figures the water won't start lapping against them for seven or eight days. Plus, he has a generator and a boat to escape in if the water gets too high.

"It's going to be slow-rising, so I'll get out if I have to. I'm not totally stupid," he said. "If it comes over the sandbags, I'm leaving."

It will be at least a week before the Mississippi River crest arrives at the Morganza spillway, where officials opened two massive gates on Saturday and another two Sunday. There are 125 in all. The Mississippi has broken river-level records that had held since the 1920s in some places.

Mary Lou Williams, left, sits in her emptied out garage as her granddaughter's boyfriend Ray Estilette carries a bench inside to protect from looters in Krotz Springs, La., Sunday, May 15, 2011. Her family was helping her evacuate in advance of forecasted flooding of the Mississippi river brought on by the opening of the Morganza Spillway north of town. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky) (Associated Press) Mary Lou Williams, left, sits in her emptied out garage as her granddaughter's boyfriend Ray Estilette carries a bench inside to protect from looters in Krotz Springs, La., Sunday, May 15, 2011. Her family was helping her evacuate in advance of forecasted flooding of the Mississippi river brought on by the opening of the Morganza Spillway north of town. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky) (Associated Press)

The Army Corps of Engineers has taken drastic steps to prevent flooding. Engineers blew up a levee in Missouri — inundating an estimated 200 square miles of farmland and damaging or destroying about 100 homes — to take the pressure off floodwalls protecting the town of Cairo, Ill.

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