By The Associated Press
JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Gov. Haley Barbour is requesting a major disaster declaration for 14 counties in the Delta where flooding from the rising Mississippi River has forced hundreds from their homes and inundated farmland.
More counties could be added as the flooding worsens, Barbour said in a statement.
The counties requested are Adams, Bolivar, Claiborne, Coahoma, DeSoto, Jefferson, Humphreys, Issaquena, Sharkey, Tunica, Warren, Washington, Wilkinson and Yazoo.
“These counties will be impacted by backwater flooding, and residents should take the necessary precautions now,” Barbour said. “This disaster declaration will help our local governments and state agencies prepare for the flooding and start helping those communities with recovery plans.”
The major disaster declaration would provide assistance both to individuals and public agencies.
State and federal officials are coordinating preparation under a previously declared federal emergency. If granted, this request would provide additional federal aid to affected local governments, individuals and businesses.
Jeff Rent, a spokesman for the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency, said Saturday that state officials hope President Obama will act swiftly on the request,
“We are just starting to see local governments spending local resources to prepare for the flooding and seeing people being displaced. By acting quickly on the declaration, the counties can begin seeing financial help as well as residents. There is nothing now out there for them.
“This would make the full range of public and individual assistance available,” Rent said.
MEMA has said more than 2,200 households have been evacuated in anticipation of flooding, ranging from two houses in Jefferson County to 1,500 in Warren County.
The National Weather Service has issued flood warnings for Warren, Issaquena, Coahoma, Tallahatchie, Quitman, Yalobusha, Panola, Tate, Tunica and DeSoto counties.
In Tunica County, about 350 people have been evacuated from what is called the Tunica Cut-Off, an area on the west side of the Mississippi River levee.
With the Mississippi River 10 feet out of its banks at 44.28 feet on the Memphis gauge and still headed toward a crest of 48 feet on May 11, county planners and emergency management officials fear that floodwaters will enter nearly all the now-abandoned homes on the unprotected side of the levee, officials have said.
The Yazoo-Mississippi Delta Levee was closed a week ago in Tunica, DeSoto and Coahoma counties.
“Our levees are in top condition, and we are confident regarding their stability,” reiterated Kelly Greenwood, YMD Levee Board Chief Engineer and CEO.
Water was six and seven feet deep in some homes, said Tunica County Emergency Management Agency Director Randy Stewart.
“But everyone has moved and cooperated, no one has argued the point,” he said Friday. “Two years ago we lost two lives in that flooding, so no one has given us any problems this time.”
Most of the casinos along the river have closed.
In Natchez Saturday, a couple dozen tourists and locals spent a sunny afternoon on the wooden porch of Under the Hill saloon, drinking cold beer and watching the swiftly moving river. The bar faces the rising water and is now only a few feet above it.
“Everybody down here seems pretty calm about it,” said Jacklynn Williams, visiting Natchez from the central Mississippi city of Brandon.
A privately hired crew worked in the Under the Hill district, assembling a temporary wall of fabric-lined wire boxes filled with sand to protect the half dozen brick structures, some of which are more than a century old. The buildings house the saloon, a restaurant and offices for a floating casino that’s docked nearby.
In Vicksburg, International Paper’s Vicksburg Mill at Redwood will close Sunday to prepare for rising water on the Mississippi and Yazoo rivers. DiamondJacks will close at 3 a.m. Monday. Both said they’ll remain shuttered until waters recede, citing a higher crest prediction issued Monday and, in IP’s case, the suspension Wednesday of north-south rail service to the Mississippi Highway 3 plant.
An area between U.S. Highway 61 North and the Port of Vicksburg is expected to flood, according to Army Corps of Engineers estimates. South of Interstate 20, flooding is predicted between the river and U.S. 61 South, extending into northwest Claiborne County and east on the Big Black River to Fisher Ferry Road.
“In light of the current flooding estimates, we are taking prudent measures to temporarily shut down the mill,” IP mill manager Tom Olstad said in a statement. “Our first concern is the safety and well-being of our employees, as well as protecting the mill’s equipment and other assets.”
Most of the mill’s 296 employees will be laid off, and a “minimal skeleton crew” will work to secure the plant, a statement from the company said. Employees will be allowed to use vacation days and will be eligible for unemployment benefits, the company said.
DiamondJacks had raised its barge a floor’s level last weekend to prepare for a 53.5-foot crest. When the crest was raised, to 57.5 feet on May 20, plans changed, said Felicia Gavin, the casino’s executive vice president and general manager.
“We now know that we will have to close, and we need time to prepare to protect our team members and our property from the Mississippi River at this historic level,” Gavin said. “The safety of our team members and our casino patrons is always top priority when making these decisions.”
Ameristar Casino said Friday in a statement it “no longer believes the facility” is at risk for significant property damage from the looming flood and, if the casino closed, the shutdown would likely last about two weeks.
River walk and Rainbow casinos remain open. The former Horizon Casino plans to reopen as Grand Station Casino sometime this month and has said its casino barge in the Yazoo Diversion Canal can withstand the river’s rise.
All the levees along the river are expected to hold up to the waters, said U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spokesman, Kavanaugh Breazeale said Friday.
“The levees are doing what they’re designed to do and things are working well,” Breazeale said. “We do have a backwater levee north of Vicksburg that is designed to have water come over that, which will happen if water gets to predicted levels. That will help to relieve pressure.”
Breazeale said the corps was finishing its Buck Chute Project on Friday. Officials cleared trees and vegetation around a sand boil discovered last year, built a berm, brought in 20,000 yards of sand, and topped it with clay on Friday.
The American Red Cross has opened two shelters for those fleeing rising waters: the G.W. Henderson Senior Recreation Center in Tunica and Hawkins United Methodist Church in Vicksburg.
In Adams County, sandbagging was continuing in a few areas.
Adams County’s road crew began constructing a 100-foot dirt wall this week in a low-lying area near the port that runs over the railroad tracks. The dirt wall will run across the railroad track to the bluff with the intent of preventing the Mississippi River from flooding the port. Officials said the wall will add four feet of height to the area, protecting the port from up to a 67-foot river crest.
Associated Press writer Emily Wagster Pettus contributed to this report from Natchez.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.