Mississippi Floods: Cajun Country Sacrificed to Save Cities

Residents "heartsick" but not angry about decision to flood their homes.

May 15, 2011, 2:21 PM

May 15, 2011— -- Now that the Mississippi River's Morganza floodgates are open, nearly 25,000 people who had chosen the quiet of the Louisiana bayou over the bustle of city life could find their livelihoods threatened.

The Loisiana towns of Krotz Spring, Morgan City and Butte La Rose are most likely to be affected by the influx of floodwater that is expected to submerge the area in the days to come.

Butte La rose, with a population of just over 26,000 people, where the average income is just over $31,000, lies at the northern tip of St. Martin Parish in Louisiana. The creeks and backwater lakes aligning the river homes provide its residents year-round fish camps and wilderness campgrounds all comprise the traditional bayou landscape.

It is a place residents say is more like their hideaway filled with "camps" than an average home.

Butte La Rose business owner Kate Buchanan said she hasn't seen many people who are angry over the Army Corps of Engineers' decision to sacrifice their homes to save the more populated areas such as New Orleans and Baton Rouge. She said they may be "heartsick," but they understand.

"People down in New Orleans got it a few years ago," she said. "There's a lot fewer people here and these people are made of much stronger stuff here."

The Department of Agriculture records the floods of 1927 and 1983 as the most severe on the lower Mississippi River. The Great Mississippi River Flood of 1927 destroyed fishing and farming communities and left transportation disrupted for months.

The 1983 flood, which lasted from late June to mid-August, resulted in damages totaling over $15.7 million and left river industries and widespread agricultural losses.

And, as the fourth spillway was opened today, Buchanan said she can't help but feel that this is the risk residents take for living on the river.

"This is the other end of it, this is the other side of the coin, this is what you take a chance of," she said.

Homeowner Ron Angell cleared out valuables and prized possessions and placed the last piece of plastic around his house. As the reality sets in that the river will be rising, he said he is trying to save what he can.

"We got a lot of people out here that this is their home, this all they work for all their lives and they're scared to lose it, so we try to help whoever we can," he said.

On Sunday, parish officials were still making door-to-door trips to the more than 750 homes with strict orders that it is time that they get out.

St. Martin Parish President Guy Cormier warned that not all residents may be equipped to make a short-term move, but with waters expected to reach more than three feet and covering most roads, mandatory evacuations that leave may leave some residents feeling forced out are still required, he said.

"We're making provisions for people that don't have home," he said. "This all of sudden comes up. We're in a draught, we're fighting floodwaters from somewhere else ... the rain is flowing our way. This is a federal flood that is coming our way and it's going to impact us."

When the Morganza floodgate was opened Saturday, it was the first time in almost 40 years it had been used, diverting water from the river into the basin's swamplands, backwater lakes and bayous to save larger cities in Baton Rouge and New Orleans from severe flooding.

There are 125 gates, which are being opened slowly to give residents and wildlife the chance to escape and to maintain the integrity of the spillway itself.

Moments after opening the spillway, a wall of water three times the weight of Niagara Falls spewed into smaller waters and tributaries, changing the reality for residents in smaller towns farther south of the river.

Army Corps of Engineers New Orleans District Commander Colonel Ed Fleming told ABC News that it will still be weeks before engineers begin to assess the new landscape and declare emergency warnings.

"We want to make sure that folks have the understanding that water's coming their way and they need to evacuate," he said.

The powerful water could affect nearly 25,000 people and hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland before communities see the Mississippi start to crest. Engineers say nearly 4,000 residents have already been affected.

In St. Mary's Parish, moving vans crowded the streets. Resident Dr. Ronald Perry said he'd thought he would live out his retirement in his quiet town, but now his life has been turned upside down.

"It looks like a battlefield across the street, it's ... something we never would have expected," he said.

While most residents were moving to safety, some recreational fisherman are waiting to see which direction the floodgates push the water and critical species within it.

The opening of the spillways, fishermen told ABC News, could push salt waters closer to the shoreline, creating a bonanza of crawfish and trout within greater reach. However, they said, the rivers could divert in a new direction, pushing fish farther downstream and creating a huge deficit for the entire season.

The spillways have already closed oyster beds, which engineers say could threaten the oyster trade for this season, according to state officials.

The crest in these areas could last between seven to 10 days. Officials could decide to open more possible floodgates, placing surrounding towns in disarray.

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