Flooded river taking aim at Mississippi Delta

By Holbrook Mohr and Shelia Byrd/The Associated Pres

RENA LARA, Miss. — Crews worked to shore up levees along the swelling Mississippi River on Wednesday as floodwaters threatened to swamp even more of the fertile Mississippi Delta.

The crest rolled south after hitting the high mark Tuesday in Memphis, Tenn., just inches short of the record set in 1937. Some low-lying neighborhoods were inundated, but high levees protected much of the rest of the city. Landmarks such as Graceland stayed dry.

In Rena Lara, Miss., an unincorporated town of about 500 where dump trucks have been hauling gravel from dawn to dusk to shore up the levee, people were uneasy Wednesday. They have no local newspaper or TV stations, so they have been relying on social networking sites and word of mouth for information. Public officials are trying to assure them that they expect the levee to hold and will give them plenty of notice if they need to leave.

“It’s getting scary,” said Rita Harris, 43, a homemaker who lives in the shadow of the levee. “They won’t let you go up there to look at the water.”

Downstream in Louisiana, inmates filled sandbags to protect property in Cajun swamp communities that could be flooded if engineers open a spillway to protect the more densely populated Baton Rouge area. Fear was high among residents there as well.

In Vicksburg, Miss., the site of a pivotal Civil War battle, William Jefferson was already paddling slowly down his street in a small boat, past his house and around his church. The river is not expected to crest until May 19.

“Half my life is still in there,” he said, pointing to the small white house swamped by several feet of water. “I hate to see it when I go back in.”

Jefferson refuses to leave his hard-hit neighborhood, so he spends his days in the sweltering sun watching the water rise and sleeping in a camper at an intersection that’s likely to flood soon, too.

“If you don’t stay with your stuff, you won’t have it,” he said. “This is what I do every day. Just watch the water.”

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour urged holdouts to head for higher ground.

“The biggest danger is that they choose not to evacuate assuming there’ll be someone to rescue them,” Barbour said, noting that emergency teams could be endangered as well.

“More than anything else, save your life and don’t put at risk other people who might have to come in and save your lives.”

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

The state gambling industry is taking a hit: All 19 casinos along the river will be shut down by the end of the week, costing governments $12 million to $13 million in taxes per month, authorities said. That will put some 13,000 employees temporarily out of work.

The worst is yet to come, with the crest expected over the next few days. As the flooding began, Shelby County officials estimated the value of the properties that could be damaged was $320 million, but an official damage 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 biggest test ever.

In northwestern Mississippi, crews have been using dirt and sand to make a levee higher at the Bolivar-Coahoma county line in the north Delta, said Charlie Tindall, attorney for the Mississippi Levee Board.

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

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.”

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.

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Mohr reported from Vicksburg, Miss. Associated Press writers Alan Sayre in New Orleans; Randall Dickerson in Nashville, Tenn., and Adrian Sainz in Memphis, Tenn., contributed to this report. AP video journalist Jason Bronis contributed from Memphis.