River rise spurs spillway opening near New Orleans
May 9, 2011
NORCO, La. (AP) -- The rising Mississippi River has prompted the Army Corps of Engineers to begin opening floodgates at a spillway upriver from New Orleans.
Shortly after 8 a.m. CDT, workers pulled restraining devices off the first of 28 gates at the the Bonnet Carre spillway that will be opened. The structure has 350 gates and the corps has said it will monitor Mississippi River levels before deciding whether more will be opened.
Fresh water from the river will be diverted into Lake Pontchartrain and from there into the Gulf of Mexico.
The corps also has asked the Mississippi River Commission for permission to open the Morganza spillway north of Baton Rouge.
Later on Monday, state officials planned to begin moving some prisoners from the Angola state penitentiary north of Baton Rouge, as waters rise.
THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.
Forecasters say the Mississippi River could crest late Monday at Memphis - hours sooner than previously predicted - but the mayor says the city's ready for it.
Mayor AC Wharton said that despite the tightened timeframe, he's confident that precautions such as door-to-door warnings have prepared the city.
"We don't have as much time, but fortunately we're ready for it," Wharton told The Early Show on CBS Monday.
Wharton said disasters such as Katrina have shown that you can't simply get the word out by issuing warnings on TV. Authorities spent the weekend knocking on doors to tell a couple hundred people that they should abandon their homes before they are swamped by waters from the rising Mississippi. Wharton said officials are returning to some houses multiple times.
"Door-to-door is a key thing that we're doing," he said, adding there are stepped up patrols to prevent looting in areas where people have left their homes behind.
Forecaster Joe Lowery of the National Weather Service office in Memphis said it looks like the river is starting to level out and could crest as soon as Monday night, at or near 48 feet (14.63 meters). Forecasters had previously predicted the crest would come Tuesday.
Memphis residents have been abandoning low-lying homes for days as the dangerously surging river threatened to crest just shy of the 48.7-foot (14.84-meter) record, set by a devastating 1937 flood.
The swollen river has swamped houses in Memphis and threatens to consume many more, but its rise has been slow enough that some people were clinging to their normal lives just a bit longer.
In all, residents in more than 1,300 homes have been told to go, and some 370 people were staying in shelters.
But while some evacuated, others came as spectators. At Beale Street, the famous thoroughfare known for blues music, dozens gawked and snapped photos as water pooled at the end of the road. Traffic was heavy downtown on a day the streets would normally be quiet.
The river is "probably the biggest tourist attraction in Memphis," said Scott Umstead, who made the half-hour drive from Collierville with his wife and their three children.
Col. Vernie Reichling, Army Corps of Engineers commander for the Memphis district, said the homes in most danger of flooding are in areas not protected by levees or floodwalls, including near Nonconnah Creek and the Wolf and Loosahatchie rivers.
About 150 Corps workers were walking along levees and monitoring performance of pump stations along what Reichling called the "wicked" Mississippi. "There should be no concern for any levees to fail," he said in a downtown park on a bluff overlooking the river.
For Cedric Blue, the flooding in his south Memphis neighborhood near the overflowing Nonconnah Creek is a source of frustration and anger.
Blue, 39, has watched as the water engulfed three homes on his street, including that of an older woman who had to be rescued in a boat because she had refused to leave. Blue fears the rising water will ruin his house and his belongings while washing away a lifetime of memories that were created there.
Sunday afternoon, a garbage can floated in the high water near his house. Some feet away, the water had reached more than halfway up a yellow "No Outlet" street sign.
He became emotional talking about how he has about 7 feet of water in his backyard and less than a foot inside the house, which his mother owns. They were in the middle of a remodeling project when the flood hit.
Blue said he wants the city, county or the federal government to give him a hotel voucher so he does not have to go to a shelter.
"I just want a new life and relocation," Blue said. "I would like the elected officials to come down here to see this with their own eyes and see what we're going through."
Flood waters were about a half-mile (800 meters) from the Beale Street's world-famous nightspots, which are on higher ground.
The river already reached record levels in some areas upstream, thanks to heavy rains and snowmelt. It spared Kentucky and northwest Tennessee any catastrophic flooding and no deaths have been reported there, but some low lying towns and farmland along the banks of the river have been inundated.
And there's tension farther south in the Mississippi Delta and Louisiana, where the river could create a slow-developing disaster.
There's so much water in the Mississippi that the tributaries that feed into it are also backed up, creating some of the worst flood problems so far.
Downriver in Louisiana, officials warned residents that even if a key spillway northwest of Baton Rouge were to be opened, residents could expect water 5 to 25 feet (1.5 to 7.5 meters) deep over parts of seven parishes. Some of Louisiana's most valuable farmland is expected to be inundated.
The Morganza spillway, northwest of Baton Rouge, could be opened as early as Thursday, but a decision has not yet been made.
The corps was going to begin opening some floodgates Monday at the Bonnet Carre spillway about 30 miles northwest of New Orleans, helping ease the pressure on levees in that area. It will be the 10th time the spillway has opened since the structure was completed in 1931.
Engineers say it is unlikely any major metropolitan areas will be inundated as the water pushes downstream over the next week or two. Nonetheless, officials are cautious.
Since the flood of 1927, a disaster that killed hundreds, Congress has made protecting the cities on the lower Mississippi a priority, spending billions to fortify cities with floodwalls and carve out overflow basins and ponds - a departure from the "levees-only" strategy that led to the 1927 disaster.
Kentucky Residents Return to Homes As Floods Continue Throughout Central U.S.
May 07, 2011
SHICKMAN, Kentucky – As Memphis readied for the mighty Mississippi River to bring its furor to town, some Kentucky residents upstream returned to their homes Saturday, optimistic the levees would hold and that they had seen the worst of the flooding.
In the small town of Hickman, Kentucky, officials and volunteers spent nearly two weeks piling sandbags on top of each other to shore up the 17-mile levee, preparing for a disaster of historic proportion. About 75 residents were told to flee town and waited anxiously for days to see just how bad the flooding would be.
By Saturday, the levee had held, and officials boasted that only a few houses appeared to be damaged. More importantly, no one was injured or killed.
"We have held back the Mississippi River and that's a feat," Fulton County's emergency management director Hugh Caldwell said. "We didn't beat it, but it didn't beat us. We'll call it a draw."
Downstream, though, there was danger, in places like Memphis, Tennessee, the Mississippi Delta and Louisiana. In Arkansas, authorities recovered the body of a man who drove around barricades earlier in the week and was swept away by floodwaters when he tried to walk out.
Memphis Mayor A C Wharton warned residents in low-lying areas to evacuate.
William Owen, 53, didn't heed the call until firefighters began to bang on his door Saturday morning. Owen said when he went to sleep, the water wasn't that high. By midday, it had risen about a foot, and was around the base of his home.
He grabbed his medication and took a city bus, along with his girlfriend and dog, to a shelter. He was told he may have to stay for two weeks.
"It seems like we've had a stroke of bad luck," Owen said. "I'm hoping things will get better, I just don't know what else to do right now."
Record river levels, some dating as far back as the 1920s, were expected to be broken in some parts along the river. In Memphis, the river was expected to crest at 48 feet on Wednesday, just shy of the 48.7-foot record from the devastating flood of 1937.
There was also a chance Memphis residents might see rain Saturday, though forecasters said the small amount moisture wouldn't affect flooding. There was other good news, too: the forecast was dry until Thursday.
Graceland, Elvis Presley's home and one of Memphis' best-known landmarks, is about a 20-minute drive from the river and in no danger of flooding. Water pooled at the lowest end of Beale Street, the thoroughfare synonymous with Mississippi blues, but it was about a half-mile (800 meters) from the street's world-famous nightspots.
About 100 miles to the north, residents in Tiptonville, Tennessee, were hopeful as the river levels started to fall.
Like many other areas along the Mississippi, the town wasn't completely spared. In Tiptonville, an estimated one-fifth of the town has suffered some flooding. All told, 75 homes have been swamped.
About 30 miles of county roads were cut off and impassable, and fields of corn, soybeans, wheat and cotton have been drowned.
Most of the Tiptonville homes were inundated with rainwater, not from the Mississippi. Because the levees' gates are closed, the town relied on pumps to move the near constant rain over the past couple of weeks, but they couldn't keep up.
Elsewhere, officials in Louisiana warned residents that even if a key spillway northwest of Baton Rouge was opened, residents should expect floods comparable to those of 1973. Some of Louisiana's most valuable farmland is expected to be inundated with water.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said the Morganza spillway could be opened as soon as Thursday, but a decision has not been made. If it is opened, it could stay open for weeks.
A separate spillway northwest of New Orleans was to be opened Monday, helping ease the pressure on levees there.
To the north in Arkansas, a portion of Interstate 40 remained closed.
Because of the billions of dollars spent on levees and other flood defenses built over the years, engineers say it is unlikely any major metropolitan areas will be inundated as the water pushes downstream over the next week or two, but farms, small towns and even some urban areas could see extensive flooding.
Since the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, a disaster that killed hundreds, Congress has made protecting the cities on the lower Mississippi a priority. The Army Corps of Engineers has spent $13 billion to fortify cities with floodwalls and carve out overflow basins and ponds -- a departure from the "levees-only" strategy that led to the 1927 calamity.
The Corps also straightened out sections of the river that used to meander and pool perilously. As a result, the Mississippi flows into the Gulf of Mexico faster, and water presses against the levees for shorter periods.
More than 4 million people live in 63 counties and parishes adjacent to the Mississippi and Atchafalaya rivers from Cairo, Illinois south to the Gulf of Mexico, down from 4.1 million in 2000, according to a census analysis by The Associated Press.
It's about twice as many people who lived in the region before the 1927 and 1937 floods.
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