By The Associated Press
JACKSON — The rising Mississippi River is threatening to inflict another major blow to the state that is still staggering from the deadly tornadoes that have ravaged the South this spring.
Gov. Haley Barbour on Tuesday asked President Barack Obama to declare 11 counties along the Mississippi River as disaster areas in anticipation of flooding. Several Mississippi counties are already declared disaster zones because of last week’s tornados, which killed 35 people in the state.
Forecasters say the river level could challenge records in Mississippi that were set during catastrophic floods in 1927 and 1937.
Emergency management officials say the river now has a levee system that wasn’t in place back then, but flooding is imminent. The high level of the Mississippi is expected to push water back into its tributaries, which creates the potential for flooding in counties not only along the river.
“We will have water in Mississippi where it has not been in my lifetime or in the lifetime of most people who will see your story,” the 63-year-old Barbour told The Associated Press on Tuesday. “The levels of the Mississippi anticipated by the Corps of Engineers will lead to backwater flooding in the south Delta at levels far above what we’ve seen.”
Barbour said people who live in flood-prone areas — particularly those that flooded in 2008 — need to move their belongings to higher ground, elevate their homes if possible and tie down any large items that might float and cause damage, such as propane tanks.
Barbour said his staff met Tuesday in Jackson with leaders of several state agencies to get a briefing about river conditions from the Corps of Engineers. Officials are gathering information about schools, correctional facilities, nursing homes and multifamily homes in areas that might flood. The Corps is holding briefings this week in the Delta so local officials can start preparing in case evacuations are needed.
“If the levees all hold and the overtopping of the backwater levee is limited to about a foot or so, towns like Rolling Fork and Anguilla will not be flooded,” Barbour said. “However, there’s going to be more water around Rolling Fork and Anguilla than in decades, and if there is a levee failure somewhere, you could have even more flooding.”
The Mississippi is expected to crest May 10 at Memphis, Tenn., two days later at Helena, Ark., and farther south in the following days.
Forecasters predict record levels in Mississippi at the cities of Vicksburg and Natchez. The 1927 crest in Vicksburg was 56.2 feet; the river is expected to crest there May 18 at 57.5 feet, according to the National Weather Service. Natchez is expected to see the river crest three days later at 65 feet, up from the 1937 record of 58.04 feet.
“The people living in the Delta are facing the biggest threat from flooding that they’ve ever faced in their lifetime,” said Cass Pennington, the president of the Delta Council, an economic development group in the Delta. He said the threat of flooding in low-lying spots, such as Rolling Fork, is cause for anxiety.
“It’s a huge issue. You’re talking about schools underwater, highways underwater,” he said. “There are going to be a lot of houses underwater and a lot of these people are low-income.”
Mississippi Emergency Management Agency spokesman Jeff Rent said he’s not aware of any plans similar to those in Missouri, where the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers blew up a levee Monday in hopes of lowering the river to save the town of Cairo, Ill. That plan is expected to sacrifice thousands of acres of farmland and about 100 houses to protect the Illinois town of about 2,800 people. But blowing up the Missouri levee is not expected to alleviate problems in the Deep South.
Rent said the response to any flooding that may occur should be swift since there are already so many federal resources and personnel like the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the area due to the tornadoes.
The high water has already shut down nine river casinos in northwest Mississippi’s Tunica County, where about 600 residents have been evacuated from flood-prone areas on the inside of the levee, said Tunica County spokesman Larry Liddell.
“We’re concerned, but as long as the levee holds we’ll be all right. And we don’t have any doubt that the levee is going to hold,” Liddell said. “We have the strongest levees in the country.”
Bobby Storey, the emergency management director in DeSoto County in Mississippi’s northwest corner, said some farmlands are already flooding and it’s only expected to get worse. He said flash flooding from recent storms has also been a problem.
“We’re praying for sunshine,” Storey said.
Barbour requested the declaration Tuesday for Adams, Bolivar, Claiborne, Coahoma, Desoto, Issaquena, Jefferson, Tunica, Warren, Washington and Wilkinson counties.
Associated Press Writers Emily Wagster Pettus in Jackson and Cain Burdeau in New Orleans contributed to this report.