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Louisiana Flood Forces Choices on River Family, Threatens Ruin

Flooding in Louisiana
A boy stands in the flooded Atchafalaya River during a mandatory evacuation on May 15, 2011, in Melville, Louisiana. The Morganza Spillway floodgates were opened for the first time in nearly 40 years to lower the crest of the flooding Mississippi River. Photographer: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Amy Thomasson, 38 and a single mother of three, spent her last night on the Louisiana land her family has farmed for more than 45 years packing photographs, furniture and clothes. A thunderstorm silhouetted the levee across the street that keeps the Atchafalaya River from her front yard.

Herb and Judith, her parents and next-door neighbors, had pulled the wedding photos of their three daughters from the dining room wall and quietly wrote off the crops growing in their fields that form part of the Morganza spillway. The fields will soon be swallowed by water diverted from the Mississippi River by the Army Corps of Engineers.

“He just said ‘We’ll grow more,’” said Thomasson of her 68-year-old father as she stood in her kitchen surrounded by her sister, Amanda Thomasson Dean, 36, friends and children. “He’s positive, positive, positive.”

The Thomassons are one of the thousands of families along the Atchafalaya River who were told they should leave their homes as diverted water from the bulging Mississippi swarms the spillway to save Baton Rouge and New Orleans.

The National Weather Service had forecast the Mississippi would be passing Baton Rouge at a rate of 1.62 million cubic feet per second on May 22, according to Colonel Ed Fleming, commander of the corps’s New Orleans office. The levees in Baton Rouge are designed to withstand 1.5 million cubic feet, he said.

The extra water is going through the Morganza into the Atchafalaya basin to spare the state capital and New Orleans, raising the specter of historic flooding in Cajun country during the next 10 days, said the weather service.

Lessons of Katrina

Just after the decision to open the spillway was made, Thomasson’s family got an automated call from Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal’s office telling them they should leave.

The lessons of Hurricane Katrina have been learned, she said.

“They didn’t die from Katrina; they died from the flood afterward,” Thomasson said of those that perished in New Orleans in August 2005 as the hurricane ripped into the city, taking an estimated 1,836 lives. “That is so fresh in my mind! I am not keeping my babies in harm’s way when I have a chance to get them out and keep them safe.”

Thomasson said she worked as a customer service representative for Delta Air Lines Inc. in Baton Rouge helping people during the storm that flooded most of New Orleans. Her mother, Judith, 64, said Thomasson took a couple in from Colorado, who had been stranded at the airport.

Mississippi Rising

Some 2,500 people and 2,000 structures lie within the spillway and another 22,500 and 11,000 buildings are vulnerable to the rising water, according to Jindal’s office.

About an hour’s drive north of Melville, under normal conditions, the Mississippi River splits. About 70 percent of its flow stays in its channel, while 30 percent meanders down the Atchafalaya, said Jeff Graschel, service coordination hydrologist for the Lower Mississippi River Forecast Center in Slidell, Louisiana.

As the Mississippi in Louisiana rose, so did the Atchafalaya. After the corps opened the Morganza on May 14, the National Weather Service forecast the Atchafalaya may rise to near record levels, breaking them in some places.

So far this year, the Mississippi and its tributaries have flooded nearly 2.5 million acres in Arkansas, Tennessee, Missouri, Mississippi and Louisiana, according to state and farm industry sources.

Five Generations

Herb Thomasson said he is about to lose 1,200 acres to the flood waters. If the levee breaches, he would lose most of what he owns.

“I put $200,000 in and I expected to get $600,000 out,” Thomasson. “It’s going to hurt.”

After living on its banks for five generations, the Thomassons has seen the rage of the Atchafalaya. Herb Thomasson’s mother, Ruby, swam in the streets of Melville during the 1927 flood and his aunt, Ruth Herbert, a local schoolteacher, collected a photo album of the damage. The pictures include scenes of a washed away railroad bridge, farm animals clinging to levees and Coast Guard patrol boats moored in town.

In 1973, the Atchafalaya rose again. The Morganza was opened and the water licked the top of the levee around the town, said Judith Thomasson.

On May 14, as the corps was preparing to open Morganza, a moving van stopped at Thomasson’s house as more than 50 friends, neighbors and family members drove up to help her pack. Our Savior’s, her Christian church in Opelousas, about 25 miles to the west, had sent help.

Man of Faith

All of her possessions and many of those her parents’ valued most, such as antique furniture and family crystal, were packed when the corps opened the first Morganza gate, sending water into the basin, first at 10,000 cubic feet per second, then raising the flow to 40,000. The release shook the structure, sending rabbits scurrying from their holes and fish through the air. Eight more gates have opened.

The truck headed for Amanda’s home in Opelousas, where Thomasson and her children will live until the crisis passes. Amanda stayed with Thomasson for several weeks after Katrina.

Herb Thomasson says he won’t leave unless he has to.

“He’s a man of great faith,” his wife Judith said. “He just doesn’t think it is going to come up here and get us.”

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