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Historic flooding threatens the Delta

Near record, with worst yet to come

Cars stood inundated yesterday in Memphis near the overflowing Wolf River, a tributary to the Mississippi. The flooding moving downriver put Delta farmland and homes in jeopardy. Cars stood inundated yesterday in Memphis near the overflowing Wolf River, a tributary to the Mississippi. The flooding moving downriver put Delta farmland and homes in jeopardy.
(Mike Brown/The Commercial Appeal/Associated Press)
By Holbrook Mohr and Shelia Byrd
Associated Press / May 11, 2011

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TUNICA, Miss. — The bulging Mississippi River rolled into the fertile Mississippi Delta yesterday, threatening to swamp antebellum mansions, wash away shotgun shacks, and destroy fields of cotton, rice, and corn in a flood of historic proportions.

The river took aim at one of the most poverty-stricken parts of the country after cresting before daybreak at Memphis just inches short of the record set in 1937. Some low-lying neighborhoods were inundated, but the city’s high levees protected much of the rest of the city.

Over the past week or so in the Delta, flood waters along the rain-swollen river and its backed-up tributaries have washed away crops, forced many people to flee to higher ground, and closed some of the dockside casinos that are vital to the state’s economy.

The worst is yet to come, with the crest expected to roll through the Delta over the next few days. The damage in Memphis was estimated at more than $320 million as the serious flooding began, and an official tally won’t be available until the waters recede.

To the south, there were no early figures on the devastation, but with hundreds of homes already damaged, “we’re going to have a lot more when the water gets to where it’s never been before,’’ said Greg Flynn, a spokesman for the Mississippi emergency management agency.

Across the region, federal officials anxiously checked and reinforced the levees, some of which could be put to their sternest test ever.

About 10 miles north of Vicksburg, Miss., contractors lined one side of what is known as a backwater levee with big sheets of plastic to keep it from eroding if flood waters flow over it as feared — something that has never happened to the levee, which was built in the 1970s.

In Vicksburg, at the southern tip of the rich alluvial soil in the central part of the state, the river was projected to peak on Saturday just above the record set during the cataclysmic Great Flood of 1927. The town was the site of a pivotal Civil War battle.

Wearing rubber boots and watching fish swim up and down his street, William Jefferson stood on a high spot in his neighborhood just outside Vicksburg. He said he had not had a hot meal since water started coming into his house a few days ago. Yesterday, the house had at least 3 feet of water, as did dozens of other homes in the neighborhood. Nearby, his brother Milton cast a fishing rod.

“At least we can catch something fresh to eat, because we ain’t got no icebox or electricity,’’ he said with a smile. Then the pair playfully debated whether they would actually eat anything caught in the filthy flood waters.

“If you eat a fish right now, you won’t live to see the water go down,’’ William Jefferson said.

Jimmy Mitchell, 46, and his wife and two children have been living in a loaned camper for more than week at a civic arena in Tunica. “There’s no sewage hookup. You go in a barn to take a shower,’’ said Mitchell, who is from the small community of Cutoff. “We have no time frame on how long we can stay.’’

As Mitchell and friends sat outside chatting in the breeze, children rode bikes nearby.

“Cutoff is a community where everybody lives from paycheck to paycheck. It’s also a community where everybody sticks together,’’ Mitchell said.

As the water rose, Mississippi’s governor, Haley Barbour, moved furniture out of his lake house outside Vicksburg on family land that was inundated during the 1927 flood. A week ago, he urged residents to flee low-lying areas, saying that the state wouldn’t assist the evacuations and that people should help one another secure their property and get out.

Widespread flooding was expected along the Yazoo River, a tributary that is backed up because of the bloated Mississippi. Rolling Fork, home of the bluesman Muddy Waters, was also in danger of getting inundated.

Farmers built homemade levees to protect their corn, cotton, wheat, and soybean crops, but many believed the crops would be lost entirely.

More than 1,500 square miles of farmland in Arkansas, which produces about half of the nation’s rice, have been swamped over the past few weeks, and the economic impact will be more than $500 million, according to the state’s Farm Bureau.

The passing of the crest in Memphis was of little consolation for many people there.

“It doesn’t matter. We’ve already lost everything,’’ said Rocio Rodriguez, 24, who has been at a shelter for 12 days with her husband and two young children since their trailer park flooded.

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