Historic flood begins to abate, but far from over

Thousands take stock of the damage dealt by the overflowing Mississippi

Published June 4, 2011 4:33PM (EDT)

Water from the Mississippi River, left, is seen from the air as it is diverted through the floodgates of the Bonnet Carre Spillway towards Lake Pontchartrain (not pictured) in Norco, La., just upriver from New Orleans, Friday, June 3, 2011. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert) (AP)
Water from the Mississippi River, left, is seen from the air as it is diverted through the floodgates of the Bonnet Carre Spillway towards Lake Pontchartrain (not pictured) in Norco, La., just upriver from New Orleans, Friday, June 3, 2011. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert) (AP)

The Mississippi River flood of 2011 may seem like a thing of the past for people who fled rising waters that never came, yet the final toll is shrouded in murky water for thousands of people devastated as the flood made its way from the Midwest to the Gulf of Mexico.

Thousands of acres of crops, timber and catfish farms are still flooded, mostly by tributaries that backed up because the Mississippi River was so high. Hundreds are still displaced from flooded homes. Some people had nothing to go home to.

In the Mississippi Delta, Tim Saxton is still praying for the levees to hold -- not the levees on the Mississippi River, but the ones on his 500-acre catfish farm. Saxton is not sure how bad Five Mile Fisheries was damaged because it's still under water. So he waits. And wonders.

"It's going to be tough on a 60-year-old man to start over, but I'm sure going to try," Saxton vowed.

The levees divided the farm into dozens of small ponds for different-sized fish. If he has to rebuild all of those levees, the financial blow will be crippling. Even if the levees survive, it could take Saxton a year or more to get back into production.

He's not the only one starting over. The mobile home park in Memphis, Tenn., where Leandro Lugo lived with his pregnant wife and two young children, is abandoned, like "something out of a movie." Many of the mobile homes were flooded to their roofs. Red stickers mark the ones that are unlivable.

Lugo and his family were among the first to arrive at the Hope Presbyterian Church shelter. Most of the 177 people who stayed there have left for rented apartments or hotel rooms paid for by the federal government. And after more than a month, Lugo and his family left, too. The bed of Lugo's white pickup truck was filled with donated items like baby diapers, chairs and a small bed for his kids.

"We were a little frustrated at one time, but we realized that we couldn't control what God has in store for us," said Lugo, a 37-year-old construction worker. "We have to keep moving forward. We can't look back."

Some were more fortunate.

Hundreds of people living along Louisiana's Atchafalaya River heeded mandatory evacuation orders when the Army Corps of Engineers opened the Morganza floodway north of Baton Rouge for the first time since 1973. The corps had warned residents of Butte LaRose that diverting the Mississippi River's flood waters into the Atchafalaya basin could inundate the town.

Several weeks later, that dire forecast hasn't come close to fruition. The slowly rising water has damaged a few homes in Butte LaRose but spared the vast majority. The mandatory evacuation order has been lifted.

"I said I wanted to give Mother Nature a run for her money. We won this time, but we don't know if we'll win the next time," said Maxim Doucet, a 37-year-old construction company owner who spent thousands of dollars preparing. He built a 6-foot levee around his home on the banks of the Atchafalaya River.

St. Martin Parish President Guy Cormier, who ordered the evacuation, credited the Army Corps of Engineers and National Weather Service for keeping him informed but said he was frustrated the projections were so far off.

"Once this is all said and done, I'm going to want some answers about how they missed this by 4 1/2 feet," he said.

Farther downstream in Morgan City, even worse conditions were predicted. So far, the oil and seafood hub hasn't seen any significant backwater flooding, said Mayor Tim Matte. However, it could be another month before the water levels cease to be a concern. That's left officials consumed with flood preparations at a time they'd normally be focused on the start of hurricane season on June 1. The season is expected to be busier than normal, with government forecasters predicting there could be as many as 18 named tropical storms.

The overestimated flood projections were based on the best data available at the time, corps spokesman Ken Holder said. But the corps didn't open as many gates on the Morganza floodway as initially anticipated, while drought conditions apparently blunted the impact of river water diverted into the basin.

"We plan for the worst and hope for the best -- and we got the best," Holder said. "When officials are charged with protecting public safety, they don't have the luxury of not planning for the worst."

Still, the Bonnet Carre spillway is pouring fresh water into Lake Pontchartain, near New Orleans. Eventually, the river water will enter the Gulf of Mexico, raising fears the fragile oyster beds, hit hard by last year's BP oil spill, could suffer again.

Even if the flooding wasn't as bad as initially feared, it's still been treacherous for those affected. Some 5,600 people have applied for government assistance in Mississippi in Tennessee, though the damage is still being assessed because high waters are still causing problems for officials.

And it could take another month to know the extent of damage to catfish farming, said Roger Barlow, president of the Catfish Institute and executive vice president of Catfish Farmers of America, a trade group. Mississippi is the leading U.S. producer of farm-raised catfish, an economic mainstay that generates $200 million in annual sales in the state. It's also not yet clear if the flood will increase prices for consumers.

Meanwhile, early estimates indicate flooding swamped 450,000 acres of cropland and caused more than $250 million in damages to agriculture in Mississippi alone, said Laura Hipp, a spokeswoman for Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour. However, an exact measure of the damage is not yet available because thousands of acres are still flooded.

Nonetheless, some row crop farmers still hope to salvage part of the season. Brett Robinson hopes to start planting soybeans Monday on a small fraction of his land to replace the corn he lost, but most of his land near Yazoo City, Miss., is still flooded. Even the parts he could plant may be littered with logs or other debris.

"We're hoping to just drop down there with a planter," Robinson said. "But we'll just have to wait and see."

Kunzelman reported from New Orleans. Sainz reported from Memphis, Tenn.

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