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Jun 4, 2011 11:13 AM by Chris Welty

Historic Flood Begins to Abate, but far From Over

JACKSON, Miss. (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 4½ 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."

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