River's toll strikes all from farmers to reverends

May 22, 2011 - 11:59 AM
Mississippi River Flooding

Floodwaters from the Mississippi River are slowly starting to recede in Vicksburg, Miss., Sunday, May 22, 2011 and the slow withdrawal of water may keep residents out of their homes for weeks to come. (AP Photo/Dave Martin)

The waters of the Mississippi River have become a creeping monster that has swallowed the homes of some and left others to wonder how unforgiving the river may be.

In Mississippi, many don't know how long it will be before their houses finally dry out. Farther downstream in Louisiana, others wait, contemplating if the predictions that their rooftops could soon be swamped will come to pass.

The river, swollen by rainfall and snowmelt, has reached its apex in places like Vicksburg, Miss. The murky waters are continuing their slow trek toward communities in Louisiana, taking far longer than first expected.

The Army Corps of Engineers opened the Morganza spillway more than a week ago, hoping to spare heavily populated Baton Rouge and New Orleans from potentially catastrophic flooding. So far, the plan has worked. Now, the water splashes through the floodgates into the Atchafalaya River basin, inching its way toward places like the oil-and-seafood hub of Morgan City.

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AMELIA, La. — Russel Andras carries the marks of a life lived on the oil patch — his skin bronzed, lines burned around his eyes, his 71-year-old body still in pretty good shape.

But the Mississippi's rampage is sending a new kind of trouble his way.

A year after the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and the ensuing embargo on oil drilling, the fabricating company Andras has run for 30 years was just getting back to business. Then the Corps opened the Morganza spillway, sending the Mississippi River's brown water into the Atchafalaya River, and spilling over Bayou Boeuf, where Andras' company operates.

Last year, Andras had close to 600 employees before the oil spill. Now, he has fewer than 150. Last week, most of them were busy building racks to lift equipment above the floodwaters, sandbagging and shutting down electrical connections.

"Things were just starting to pick up again," said Andras, whose company fabricates metal for oil drilling operations. "But the contracts we have are on tight deadlines, and we can't make them with all my workers picking up for the flood."

While his workers moved equipment and filled sandbags, Andras was working the phones, talking to clients, explaining what was happening, asking them to understand.

The waiting is the hardest part, Andras said. Waiting to see how high the water will go, waiting to see if his business and house will survive.

"It's another tough blow," he said. "Things were just starting to get a little better, but this flood could make it really bad. Really bad."

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VIDALIA, La. — Arty Person has spent half his 44 years farming. He raises rice, corn, cotton and soy beans on 4,000 acres in Concordia Parish in east-central Louisiana.

It was never an easy job, but never has it been this difficult.

"I'm flooded on one side of the levee and drying out on the other," Person said with a rueful grin. "And it looks like what isn't dried up or drowned will be eaten by the deer."

Many of Louisiana's parishes had been stricken by drought — and many of those are now flooded. It had been the year farmers were supposed to get caught up and pay off their bills, with ethanol demand pushing corn prices higher and soy beans and cotton fetching good prices, too.

Now, Person is left to worry about the seepage — water pushed to the surface of his field by the river's pressure against the levees — that will rot his plants.

"If the river goes down quickly, if we don't get a lot of rain, those crops might make it," Person said. Then again, he needs the rain for the fields drying out.

Worse still, wild hogs and other wildlife are digging and wallowing in his fields. Deer are finding a free meal, eating the fields bare. He rides the fields through the night with a gas gun, which makes a loud noise to scare off the animals. It isn't working.

"I think they've pretty well gotten used to it," Person said. "It doesn't scare them much anymore."

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PORT GIBSON, Miss. — The Rev. Eddie Walls Jr., 83, lives in a town that Civil War Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant said was "too beautiful to burn."

Beauty is not what comes to mind in the small hotel room Walls shares with his 52-year-old daughter Linda and her 30-year-old autistic son. The room is crowded and cluttered. Clothes and other belongings are scattered about. Privacy does not exist.

Days grind by in conditions like these. And to make things worse, the money for the hotel room might dry up before the water does. They can't get home because of flooded streets. They can only pray that it isn't flooded.

"There's not a thing in the world you can do about it but pray," Walls said, wearing plaid pajamas and clutching a cane as he sat on the edge of a hotel bed.

Linda sat on the other side of the bed. Her son clung to a brown bear and watched TV, the covers pulled high, almost covering his face.

"But we're together as a family," Linda said.

"If you don't have family, what do you have? Not a thing in the world. We're taking it a day at a time, and God is going to work it out."

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CUTOFF, Miss. — Harry Johnson, a retired mechanic, found his corner of paradise in a little community that sprang from fishing camps.

Cutoff, in Mississippi's Tunica County, is on the unprotected side of the Mississippi River levee and is under water. It wasn't so bad for Johnson, a grown man, to gather up his most prized possessions to rescue before the floodwaters hit. For his 10-year-old daughter, such a task was unmerciful.

"When I went in her room, I just fell apart," Johnson said while sitting on a shelter cot in a dimly lit gymnasium. "How do you pick which of your child's toys to take and which ones to leave behind? And then there's all the little art stuff she made. I was just beside myself."

Cutoff is a community where "600 people know each other's names" and most travel around in golf carts. Like many residents, Johnson doubts it will ever recover because there's already talk of stricter building codes with higher elevations that will be too expensive for most.

"We all fell apart and cried. Not materially what we lost, but the culture and lifestyle we had," said Johnson, who had worked repairing equipment at factories.

If there can be a bright side, it's that Johnson picked the right toys: "All the ones she asked about are the ones I got."