VICKSBURG, Miss. — One of two key frontlines in the battle against the Mississippi River got some good news Wednesday: the crest expected there Thursday should be a few inches lower — enough to keep a key levee from overtopping and flooding farmland in the Mississippi Delta.
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In and around Vicksburg, Miss., the news brought relief for some, was too late for others and did little to reassure those on the edge.
Among those still keeping a close eye on the levee was Ed Jordan, a farmer from Carter near Yazoo City. About a third of his farm is underwater, and the rest is parched. He's agonizing over whether to water crops that could still get flooded.
"We're having a flood and a drought at the same time," he said.
Officials had been closely watching water inch up to the Yazoo Backwater Levee north of Vicksburg, but on Wednesday the Army Corps of Engineers said it no longer expects the water to overflow.
The Corps is now forecasting that the Mississippi River will crest at Vicksburg at 57.1 feet on Thursday, down a few inches from recent predictions that could have meant tens of thousands of acres of flooded farmland in the Mississippi Delta.
If water does go over the Yazoo Backwater Levee, it will be minimal, said Corps spokesman Wayne Stroupe.
"We're going to be all right. If it overtops, it's going to be a trickle," Stroupe said.
Some of the worst flooding in Mississippi has been in the Vicksburg area, where dozens of homes have already flooded and many residents have been living in shelters for nearly two weeks.
It's anyone's guess when the several thousand evacuees will be able to return to their properties, but Mississippi's governor said it could take until late June for water to retreat in certain places.
"Lord only knows when it's going to recede. It's so much water," said Steven Cole, who's staying at a Vicksburg church being used as shelter for Red Cross victims.
More than 4,800 people have been displaced in Mississippi due to flooding, with more than 2,000 of them in Vicksburg and surrounding areas in Warren County. More than 6,000 people in Mississippi could be displaced before the flood is over, said Mississippi Emergency Management Agency spokesman Jeff Rent.
Vivian Taylor-Wells, a 60-year-old substitute teacher in Vicksburg, described a sense of denial for many residents of her neighborhood in south Vicksburg before the flooding got bad.
"We thought maybe it wouldn't get that bad," she said. "When we saw water starting to build up in fields behind the neighborhood we started to get worried. Then we started seeing snakes and worms coming up out of the ground and we became very concerned."
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Her car broke down while she was evacuating, so she had to leave behind many belongings at her house, which was swamped with several feet of water.
"I can't say what the losses are going to be, but it's going to be big," she said.
Accommodations for evacuees range from shelters lined with cots to parking lots where people gathered in campers.
People who have been staying in the lot outside the Tunica Arena and Exposition Center have been given until June 10 to find somewhere else to live. Jimmy Mitchell has been sleeping in a camper at the site since the flood forced residents from Tunica's Cutoff neighborhood in late April. He doesn't know where to go.
"We've got to figure it out," he said.
By the time the deadline arrives, federal money could be available to help pay evacuees' expenses, including the cost of hotel rooms, Tunica County Supervisor James Dunn said.
The second major frontline lies farther south, in Louisiana's Atchafalaya River Basin.
Over the weekend, the Army Corps opened the Morganza Spillway, choosing to flood rural areas with fewer homes to protect Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Another spillway near New Orleans was opened earlier, but it did not threaten homes.
Nearly 5,000 people have left their homes in the Atchafalaya Basin, which is slowing seeing waters rise.
On the Mississippi itself, cargo was slowly moving Wednesday after a costly daylong standstill.
The Coast Guard for much of Tuesday closed a 15-mile stretch at Natchez, Miss., blocking vessels heading toward the Gulf of Mexico and others trying to return north after dropping off their freight.
Later in the day, barges that haul coal, timber, iron, steel and more than half of America's grain exports were again allowed to pass, but at the slowest possible speed. Such interruptions could cost the U.S. economy hundreds of millions of dollars for each day the barges are idled, as the toll from the weeks of flooding from Arkansas to Louisiana continues to mount.
Wakes generated by passing barge traffic could increase the strain on levees designed to hold back the river, officials said.
Natchez Mayor Jake Middleton said he met Monday with Maj. Gen. Michael Walsh and other officials when they discussed the river closing, the latest tough move to try to ensure the levees are not breached.
"You have two hospitals, a convention center, a hotel and a spa on the Louisiana side. On our side, we have a restaurant and bar and several very old, historic buildings that we are trying to save," Middleton said.
Coast Guard Cmdr. Mark Moland said tests indicated sandbagging and other measures to protect most of the area could withstand the wakes if the vessels were ordered to move through at the slowest possible speed. It's not clear how long barges would only be able to move one at a time. The river is expected to stay high in some places for weeks.
Such interruptions could cost the U.S. economy hundreds of millions of dollars for every day of idled barges as the toll from the weeks of Mississippi flooding continues to escalate.
In Vidalia, La., across the river from Natchez, Carla Jenkins was near tears as she watched the first tows and barges move north after the reopening.
"The water from the wakes just keeps coming into our buildings. We're going to have a lot more damage," said Jenkins, who owns Vidalia Dock and Storage.
Throughout the spring, the Mississippi is a highway for barges laden with corn, soybeans and other crops headed from the Midwest to ports near New Orleans, where they get loaded onto massive grain carriers for export around the world. The closure helped push corn, wheat and soybean prices higher Tuesday.
Traders, however, are more worried that flooded acreage won't be replanted with corn, said John Sanow, an analyst with DTN Telvent.
On a typical day, some 600 barges move back and forth along the Mississippi, with a single vessel carrying as much cargo as 70 tractor-trailers or 17 rail cars, according to Bob Anderson, spokesman for the Mississippi Valley Division of the Army Corps of Engineers.
"When it shuts, there's really no alternative," said Jim Reed, president of the Illinois Corn Growers Association.
Also Tuesday, at least 10 freight terminals along the lower Mississippi between Baton Rouge and New Orleans suspended operations because of high water. Vessels scheduled to use the terminals will either have to wait out the high water or divert elsewhere. Delaying a vessel by even a single day often costs $20,000 to $40,000, port officials said.
The closure at Natchez was the third in a series of recent moves designed to protect homes and businesses behind levees and floodwalls along the river.
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