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Mississippi Floodwaters Move South as Cities Watch, Prepare

Mississippi River Flooding
Barricades block access to a flooded Vicksburg, Mississippi, neighborhood on May 10, 2011. The Mississippi river at Vicksburg is expected to rise an additional four feet by Thursday. Photographer: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Communities between Memphis, Tennessee, and the Gulf of Mexico inspected levees and packed sandbags as they watched the Mississippi River’s floodwaters roll south toward refineries, riverboat casinos and farms.

As many as 3,900 people may be affected by flooding in northern Louisiana, above the point where officials may have to open a spillway that would inundate more than 3 million acres to the south, Governor Bobby Jindal said at a press conference today in Baton Rouge.

In Mississippi, officials are most concerned about tributary flooding in the fertile Delta region in the northwestern corner of the state, Governor Haley Barbour told reporters today in Greenville.

“There’s no reason for anybody to lose their life in this,” Barbour said. “We’ve had days and days of warning and the crest isn’t even here yet.”

Floods along the Mississippi and Ohio rivers and other tributaries in the past month have helped to drive gasoline futures prices higher, forced thousands to leave their homes, inundated businesses along the riverbank and wiped out thousands of acres of farmland.

Moving South

The river in Memphis crested at 47.87 feet yesterday, just below the 1937 record of 48.7, according to the weather service. The bulge of water caused by the convergence of the swollen Mississippi and Ohio rivers at Cairo, Illinois, is moving slowly downstream toward New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico, which it will reach in about two weeks.

Gasoline fell today in New York for the first time in three days after rising on speculation that flooding would cut supplies. Gasoline for June delivery declined 25.69 cents, or 7.6 percent, to settle at $3.1228 a gallon on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

The premium of June gasoline over crude on Nymex surged as much as $4.97 to $40.11 a barrel yesterday, the largest since at least 1990. It sank $5.12 to $32.95 a barrel today.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is expected to open the Morganza spillway, sending water down the Atchafalaya River basin for the first time since 1973, when the river flow reaches 1.5 million cubic feet per second at Louisiana’s Red River Landing, Jindal said.

The threshold may be reached by the day after tomorrow, according to the National Weather Service. The flow today at the landing, where Louisiana’s state line stops following the river and cuts straight east, was about 1.36 million cubic feet per second, Jindal said.

Morganza Impact

About 2,500 people inside the floodway may be affected by the opening of the Morganza, while backed-up tributaries cause smaller rivers and bayous to flood, affecting as many as 22,500 others, Jindal said. Residents in the spillway should assume the Morganza will be opened and act accordingly, he said today.

Opening the Morganza could mean floods of 15 feet near Morgan City, Louisiana, 100 miles south, as waters pour out of the Mississippi to the west of the riverbed, according to a Corps map. If the spillway isn’t opened, New Orleans may be threatened by flood waters and levee breaks that would cause greater damage than Hurricane Katrina, the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported, citing a Corps map it obtained.

“You hate to pass the buck on to someone else,” said Fred Taylor, who owns Poor Boy Lloyd’s Seafood Restaurant near the river in Baton Rouge. He said he couldn’t remember seeing the river so high in his 63 years. A tanker heading south filled the window as it glided past.

Looking and Fishing

An earthen levee, reinforced by concrete in front of the downtown area, protects Baton Rouge from the Mississippi. Along the sloping concrete wall, the name of the state capitol, usually visible in large red letters, is almost obscured. A walkway at the summit is a popular spot for people trying to catch catfish or pose for pictures in front of the rising water.

At noon local time, the river was at 42.48 feet at Baton Rouge, heading for a crest of 47.5 feet on May 22, according to the weather service. That would be above the 1927 record of 47.3 feet.

The city has begun to bring low spots in the levee up to a uniform height by filling the gaps with sandbags. Larger bags have been dropped on the storm drains around the Statehouse.

To the southwest, in Morgan City, officials brought in almost two miles of temporary dikes to help reinforce the work of the city’s giant floodwalls. The Bonnet Carre spillway west of New Orleans was opened May 9 so excess river water could pour north into Lake Pontchartrain.

Yazoo River

Mississippi’s Barbour said officials are concerned about a possible breach of a levee that was built to relieve flooding on the Yazoo River. A failure would affect thousands of people in Cary, Hollandale and other towns south of Greenville, he said.

While levees appear to be holding based on an aerial inspection today, Barbour said the river’s crest won’t occur until next week and then it will take weeks to decline gradually.

At Vicksburg, Mississippi, due west of Jackson, the river is expected to crest at 57.5 feet on May 19, about 1.5 above the 1927 record, according to the Corps of Engineers. Two of the area’s four casinos, which employ about 2,000 people in all, are shuttered, and about 1,200 of Vicksburg’s 4,000 manufacturing jobs are idled, said Wayne Mansfield, executive director of the Warren County Port Commission.

Mississippi Impact

About 1.4 million acres of Mississippi farm and timber land probably will go under water, said Andy Prosser, a spokesman for the state Department of Agriculture and Commerce.

The torrent has shut river traffic along large stretches of the system, interrupting coal, commodities and chemical shipments. While barges are still plying the river in Baton Rouge, navigation north of the city will start to shut down when the Mississippi goes higher.

The Corps of Engineers said it will shut Louisiana’s Old River Lock when water reaches 63 feet there or 62.5 feet at the nearby Red River Landing, now at 60 feet.

The Old River Lock allows navigation on the Red, Mississippi and Atchafalaya rivers, said Rachel Rodi, a Corps spokeswoman. It is designed for commercial and pleasure boats and handles mostly chemicals and agriculture shipments.

Between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, there are 11 refineries along the river with a combined capacity of 2.5 million barrels a day, or 13 percent of U.S. output, according to Andy Lipow, president of Lipow Oil Associates LLC in Houston.

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