Mississippi River Approaches Crest in Historic Towns of Vicksburg, Natchez

The engorged Mississippi River is cresting in the state that bears its name, rising to major flood stage and above in towns famous for Civil War battles, riverboat landings and antebellum homes.

The river left standing its 1927 record in Greenville, Mississippi, when it crested there yesterday at 64.2 feet, below the 65.4-foot mark that helped lead to the creation of the U.S. Flood Control Act of 1928 for river management.

A crest of 57.5 feet, more than a foot above the 1927 high, is expected tomorrow at Vicksburg, while downstream at Natchez the river is forecast to top out May 21 at 63 feet, 5 feet above a 1937 record.

“We have the levee there and we’re praying it holds,” said Beth Hite, 53, bartender at Natchez’s Under-the-Hill Saloon, which bills itself as a place where thieves and gamblers roamed in the days when the town was a major riverboat stop. “We have been sandbagging and now they are building those artificial levees.”

Farther down the river, in Louisiana, 16 gates are open on the Morganza spillway, diverting the Mississippi’s excess into the Atchafalaya River basin. The opening of the spillway for the first time since 1973 eased the threat of flooding for Baton Rouge, New Orleans and a major petrochemical zone while sending the water into Cajun country.

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal said yesterday that the flow through the spillway appears lower than projected, while flooding on backed-up tributaries in the northern part of the state has been less than forecast.

No Quick End

“There’s still an awful lot of water headed our way and it’s going to be here in many cases for weeks, not just a few days,” Jindal said at a press conference.

Greenville, site of a devastating levee break during the river’s 1927 flood, avoided a repeat. The town, once known for cotton plantations, lies at the southern end of the Delta region known as the birthplace of the blues.

In Vicksburg, the site of an 1863 Civil War battle and the burial site for 17,000 soldiers who died in that conflict, the river reached 57.01 feet yesterday, above the record of 56.2 feet, according to the National Weather Service.

At least 760 people from 190 homes were evacuated, Vicksburg Fire Chief Charles Atkins said. The water is rising at the rate of a foot a day, although it has been slowing as the crest nears, he said.

“We’re just holding onto what we have and waiting for the crest,” Atkins said by telephone.

Shoring Up Levees

In Natchez, which boasts being two years older than New Orleans, Hite said trucks carrying granite blocks and rocks have been driving up to the river’s edge and dumping their loads to shore up the city’s levee. She said the bar hasn’t taken any precautions “because we’re hoping it doesn’t come up that high.”

Because of the Morganza diversion, the Mississippi topped out at about 17 feet in New Orleans, 2.5 feet below the forecast, and crested early today at 45 feet in Baton Rouge, less than a record 47.5 that had been expected by May 22, according to the U.S. Lower Mississippi River Forecast Center.

The levels probably won’t increase much in those cities, even with the bulge of the Mississippi’s high water still days away, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The corps is monitoring the flow at Louisiana’s Red River Landing to keep the rate at 1.5 million cubic feet per second. The crest at Red River is expected May 22.

In Flood’s Way

About 2,500 people and 2,000 structures are within the spillway, with 22,500 people and 11,000 buildings vulnerable to the rising water in tributaries and bayous, according to Jindal. Farm losses could total hundreds of millions of dollars, he said.

Also inside the threatened area also are 2,264 oil or natural gas wells that each day produce 19,278 barrels of crude oil, about 10 percent of Louisiana’s onshore total, and 252.6 million cubic feet of gas, according to the state.

The water from the Morganza is expected to reach Morgan City near the Gulf of Mexico later this week. The Atchafalaya is forecast to crest at 11 feet in Morgan City on May 25, above the record 10.53 feet in 1973.

The Mississippi is the largest river system in the country and the third-largest watershed in the world, and drains 41 percent of the continental U.S., according to the corps. The river’s rising water, caused by heavy rain and snowmelt, has interrupted coal shipments to power plants in Tennessee, flooded more than 100,000 acres of Missouri cropland and forced thousands from their homes.

To contact the reporter on this story: Brian K. Sullivan in Baton Rouge at bsullivan10@bloomberg.net;

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Dan Stets at dstets@bloomberg.net.

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