Plug pulled on floodgate, but waters will be weeks draining
JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Officials have finally pulled the plug to allow an unusual flood trapped inside a levee system in Mississippi to drain, but it could be weeks before waters fully recede.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers opened a floodgate Monday that keeps the Mississippi River from inundating thousands of square miles of the Mississippi Delta region. However, when the Steele Bayou structure is closed, water draining south through the Delta has nowhere to go, rising inside a system of levees.
The gate had been closed since Feb. 15, causing the worst flooding since 1973, even as it protected against an even worse flood. When the Yazoo Backwater Levee was built, a pumping system was planned, but plans were dropped after opposition from environmentalists who said it would dry out wetlands in the backwater. This flood has renewed calls for the pumps to be built.
Mississippi Levee Board Chief Engineer Peter Nimrod says 512,000 acres (207,000 hectares) have flooded, including 208,000 acres (84,000 hectares) of farmland. Farmers warn they will plant crops late or not at all. Residents evacuated hundreds of homes flooded or isolated by the rising water.
Warren County Emergency Management Director John Elfer said Corps of Engineers officials actually opened the gate twice Monday. The first time, they concluded water from the Mississippi River was still higher than inside the area protected by the backwater levee. But the second time, they concluded water was slowly flowing out of the flooded backwater toward the big river and ultimately the Gulf of Mexico.
For now, the decrease in flooding may be slow.
“I think this high water is going to be with us for another week or two,” Elfer said. “It’s not going to be an immediate relief thing.”
National Weather Service forecasts show the Mississippi could fall to flood stage at Vicksburg by late next week, which would accelerate the draining of the backwater area. The fall on the lower Mississippi comes despite heavy rains in the Missouri River valley that sparked warnings of flooding downstream. Water may rise again later.
“We have experienced below average rainfall during these last few weeks in March and are relieved that stages on the Mississippi River are gradually falling.” Col. Michael Derosier, commander of the Vicksburg District of the Corps of Engineers, said in a statement. “We remain vigilant as we enter the spring rainy season with an already high Mississippi River and interior Yazoo backwater area.”
Elfer said he’s worried about damage to submerged roads as well as to homes. He said more than 90 homes in Warren County have been affected.
“This whole area has been severely impacted,” he said by phone Monday while visiting a flooded rural area in the northern part of the county.
A residential area around Eagle Lake is only accessible by traveling atop a levee, and residents there sandbagged a road trying to keep it open. The small town of Holly Bluff is also mostly isolated.
The Corps and local levee boards say they continue to monitor levees in the region but have seen no significant problems.
Follow Jeff Amy at: http://twitter.com/jeffamy .